A Townie, A Memoir

A Townie, A Memoir

By his early twenties, Andre Dubus III was a full-fledged Marxist.  He was planning to study for his doctoral degree in social policy theory, nightly sitting on the floor of his tiny apartment devouring Socialist literature and damning the unjust society which begot him.  He decided against a Ph.D. to concentrate on writing fiction, but his disaffection with class tension and socio-economic hierarchies has long been a looming specter in his novels.  He grew up poor in crime-infested greater Boston mill towns after his famous father deserted him, his mother, and his three siblings in favor of a comfortable life teaching writing across the Merrimack River.  Reviews of Andre Dubus III’s writing always seem to be peppered with the word “tender,” probably because of the heartbreaking humanity of his style.  But in his memoir, Townie, he examines how the brutality of his duplicitous life and the pain of his father’s abandonment led him toward a long streak of violence that consumed much of his life.

Back in April when I saw Dubus read from Townie at Porter Square Books, mere miles from his inner-city hometown of Haverhill, he seemed peacefully demure, removed from his past as an iron-fisted, thick-bodied brute.  After witnessing his younger brother Jeb get punched in the face repeatedly by a grown man, a teenaged Andre vowed to be defenseless no more and began lifting weights and boxing with maniacal intensity.  For years Dubus lived the eye-for-an-eye gangster mentality—if you pounded someone in a fight, you’d better keep your eyes open for the inevitable rebuttal.  But he didn’t have the edgy look or imposing stature I’d pictured from the image he had created.  Instead, he gently asked the first name of each audience member who had a question, addressed them as he answered, and thanked them for asking. I couldn’t help but wonder how a kid who grew up breaking people’s faces for survival had learned such manners.

With his father gone and his mother working several jobs to get by, Andre and his brother and sisters would prowl the crime-riddled streets of Haverhill and slums of Newburyport–can anyone remember when Newburyport was a slum?–sometimes stumbling into trouble, other times looking for it. Andre displaced his father, who had done little in the way of protecting his family, and equipped himself with the means to survive, fighting when he had to, but more often when he didn’t. He would shatter what he called the ‘membrane’ between his fist and someone’s face, and release himself from his years of constantly running from neighborhood threats. Scuttling in the background of his exhilarating weekly street battles were the weekends he spent with his father on the Bradford College campus, where the division in class was harshly spotlighted. The younger Dubus struggled with the lace-curtain life he had with his father, who knew nothing of his children’s lives of poverty and violence on the other side of the river. Andre began to resent his father for neglecting that part of their lives, and though Andre wanted many times to tell him about it, he never did.

Andre’s instinct to fight turned into a steady addiction that lasted well into his twenties when something inside him finally switched off—or on—that told him to stop. Dubus can’t even explain why, one cold night when he was supposed to be training for the Golden Gloves, he “watched [him]self,” disembodied, move away from the door to sit in front of a handful of blank lined paper. That night he traded in the time he usually spent punching a heavy bag for scratching out the beginning threads of his first story, a turning point of which Dubus can’t confidently identify the beginning or end. We’ll often see detailed sketches of his childhood friends, who lived under similar circumstances, breaking into junkyards or smoking pot or running from the cops. And when two hundred pages later he tells us of their unfortunate fate, usually death or imprisonment, it is almost with a sense of incredulous relief that he climbed out of that hole.  Andre’s helplessness to change class issues was a feeling that he found more and more difficult to disguise, and that which nearly drove him to a breakdown. In one particular instance, while bartending at a wealthy party, he says, ” I tried to stay polite to whoever talked to me, but it was like coming down with a fever at a picnic and trying to pretend you felt fine.”

Eventually he realized that his fighting was contributing to his own social devolution, and now Dubus is breaking in this relatively new life, one that was shrouded for so many years by his blue collar roots.  Townie is appropriately titled.  That word is a massive bombardment of connotations, a simple but derogatory term that defames an entire population of working-class people.  When the young Andre attends the same college where his father is a teacher, the other students gossip: “That’s Dubus’s son. Look at him. He’s such a townie.”  Though Dubus has undergone tremendous changes in temperament, there is nothing that suggests the townie in him is completely lost. His first novel, Bluesman, reflects Dubus’s life like a funhouse mirror, and the highly successful House of Sand and Fog represents a clash of culture and social identity plucked from the deep-set corners of his subconscious.  But this is memoir, something Dubus has never tackled head-on.  In Townie he is breaking open the two lives within himself.  You are not reading a story that the writer Andre Dubus III has recreated from personal experience; you are hearing about the life a boy named Andre once lived.  Townie may not make you enjoy his fiction any more than you did, but at the very least it allows you to understand why it exists at all.

 

Robin Beaudoin


 

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