I came across this title on a “best of the year” list recently. I loved “House of Sand and Fog” written by Dubus years ago, and I’m always on the lookout for a memoir. “Townie” sounded interesting because of the relationship that Dubus III had with his father, Andre Dubus, the late short story writer.
Dubus III, his two brothers and sisters grew up primarily with their mother, living in blue collar neighborhoods in worn out Massachusetts cities of the 70s and 80s. Early on, he sensed that he was basically a chicken who allowed others to push him (and his family) around. He hated that about himself. Their neighborhoods saw plenty of violence and crime. His mother worked hard and was away from the house a lot. He and his dad, by then a faculty member at a small college nearby, saw each other on weekends, and sometimes for dinners together during the week.
Eventually, Dubus III became someone who threw punches at others. Much of this book chronicles the various fights in which he engaged. Because of the extensive focus on fighting, I found this to be a book about another world. I’ve never thrown a punch, and never been punched. I’ve never been friends with people who did so. The fighting began to seem tiresome. I kept waiting for him to find another way to live. Eventually, he did.
At a certain point, things stabilize. Dubus III decides to be an educated person. He gets to know his father, spends time with him. His mother and her long-term boyfriend remain in his life. Dubus III has an epiphany, an experience where he writes, and it is rewarding in ways he hadn’t predicted.
But a certain anger remains about how alone and afraid he was as a child, and how much he missed. A couple of images that I’ll keep from this book include one where Dubus III, maybe 12 or so, plays catch with his dad, and his dad is baffled that he doesn’t know how to throw a baseball. He never taught his son, and apparently it hadn’t occurred to him that he might not know how. Nor did he recognize that his son lived in a place where children weren’t engaged in sports. Similarly, when the elder Dubus referred to the Red Sox, his son honestly didn’t know what he was talking about.
As an adult, once he established a strong bond with his father, Dubus III tries to find a time and a way to tell his father how awful it was for him, his brothers and sister. A couple of opportunities slip through his fingers, and maybe it isn’t as critical as he thought.
What stays is that sense of loss and fear, expressed most often as explosive physical anger.
Dubus III writes well–he conveys what was bad about his upbringing, but he’s also a fine observer of the time and place where he grew up. There was room for fun, room for friendship. That he was such a sensitive observer probably explains both the fighting and his talent for writing.
Many readers of literary fiction enjoy the story behind the stories of their favorite authors, and certainly I’ll recommend this to people who loved “House of Sand and Fog.” I’m having a hard time putting my finger on the other audiences for this book and its themes of anger, transformation, physical violence, courage, and art–somehow that list reminds me of Hemingway. There is a whole sense of adventure here underpinned by intelligence–and that suggests that a wide audience indeed.