Book: Townie by Andre Dubus III
Andre Dubus III has written a memoir packed with the incidents of an earlier life that most people would want to forget. His childhood would provide years of material for psychoanalysis–a mostly absent father, a mother struggling to raise three kids in poverty, a suicidal brother and partying sister. And that’s just the other people in the family.
Dubus himself is the small kid who is bullied and beat up regularly on the mean streets of the dying industrial town of Haverhill Massachusetts in the Merrimack River valley north of Boston.
Townie relates his determination to build up his body–develop muscles that will allow him to punish the bullies–is a reminder of the ads in old comic books. Remember? The bully at the beach kicks sand in the face of the scrawny boy who invests in a Charles Atlas body-building program and becomes a hulk.
But as Dubus builds his body, he falls a little too in love with the power it gives him. He loves the fight. He relishes learning to, as he puts it, break the invisible membrane between him and his victim when he throws a punch or slams a foot into a kidney.
The amazing thing about this book is that although its subject is violence of a kind I have never experienced and it takes place in a world of poverty that makes me feel alien and overpriveleged, I could sink entirely into the life described. That’s how vivid and enticing Dubus’ writing is.
Yes, the subject of violence and the stultifying effects of poverty are dark, but the author brings humor and softer emotions into play. The mother and children are close. He never lost his affection for his father, despite the man’s bumbling attempts at fatherhood and serial, arrogant unfaithfulness to whatever woman he was with at the time.
The fact that his father was a well known author did not create a desire in Andre III to follow in those footsteps. However, a love of words and story telling eventually squeezed out his youthful rage and led him to walk away from fights.
Nevertheless, you can’t read the endless detailed descriptions of people purposefully injurying each other without wondering whether Dubus is purging himself of violent urges or being a bit nostalgic about the days when he broke the membrane between people with a fist instead of with words.
His acknowledgements mention that the town has vastly changed since he grew up there, and Haverhill sounds like a place you might want to visit now.
I heard Andre Dubus III speak at the Tucson Book Festival, and you can read about the Book Festival here. If you saw the movie House of Sand and Fog, you know his work. He wrote the book that movie was based on. And his latest book, a collection of linked novellas, is called Dirty Love.
On this six-minute video, Dubus talks eloquently about violence and what it means to him.
Note: I read this book , which I purchased myself, on my Kindle. The text above contains some links to book titles which will take you to Amazon. There anything you purchase will contribute a few cents to A Traveler’s Library and I appreciate your support.