Andre Dubus III’s memoir, Townie, should be lauded for a few worthy things. Dubus’sstory of his once-ideal childhood followed by bereft adolescence—in which his father,the acclaimed author Andre Dubus II, was mostly absent and in whichuncertainty, hardship, and aimlessness were constant companions—is a coolexamination of the shifting relationships between parents and children, husbandsand wives, brothers and sisters. It’s also an unsentimental portrayal (and forthat reason a welcome and engrossing one) of the lives of writers and thedemands of vocation. And it’s a rough tribute to the blighted industrial townsof Massachusetts during the ’70s, when the feathers were dropping off the wingsof prosperity for blue-collar America.
But what stands out aboutDubus’s memoir, which reads like the kind of book a writer has been waiting hiswhole life to produce—one in which the sentences are unforced and exact, andthe voice is placid with wisdom and generosity—is its violence. Townie offers some of the best writingin recent American literature on how common and unremarkable the crunching ofnoses, the slicing of stomachs, and the stomping of heads is to the experienceof a vast number of young men. What’s more, the world in which these sometimesappalling fights (if you can call them that; they’re closer to whirlwinds ofrage) take place isn’t quite the one we’ve been conditioned to expect. Thesearen’t the favelas; we’re not in West Baltimore. These are white kids, most ofthem from the lower-middle class.
True, some of them comefrom more comfortable circumstances than their peers, and some of their parentsare even educated. But all of them party, go to school, or plain hang out undera colossal threat, one all the more stunning for how it’s downplayed if notoutright ignored. And if they survive their teen years? They get to spend theiradult days in the mill bars, “darkened, nearly windowless caves filled withmen and women drinking and smoking.” The kids know the “stories ofknifings or shootings in these places, of brawls with guys getting their teethknocked out, their noses broken, their jaws splintered and having to be wiredshut.” This is to say nothing of the women who are assaulted or worse.
Townie‘sthrough-line is the story of how Dubus, who’s perhaps best known for hiswell-received novel House of Sand and Fog, navigated the brutality around him, going froman ineffectual skinny kid who’s powerless from stopping a grown man hammeringon his kid brother’s face, to a hardened boy who tears out the engine of hispsyche and reconstructs himself into a hulking weightlifter and sometime boxerwho has no problem tearing through the “membrane” of humanityencircling all of us. Fight after fight, Dubus can do so with increasing ease,and the results leave him with blood-spattered clothes and ruined knuckles—anddrained an ounce less of the stuff that makes us fit to be in society. “Again,there was this almost electric hum in my bones that I had somehow gotten myselfwired wrong,” Dubus writes, “that now I was stuck with impulses Icould not control, ones that could lead to nothing but deeper and deepertrouble.”
Likewomanizing (another badge of indignity earned by teen boys), street fighting isabout much more than sating primal impulses. It speaks to a ravenous emptiness,and a need to fill it, doing so with jolts of action and exhilaration thatdeliver diminishing returns. Dubus gives as concrete a dissection of thisparticular illness as one could hope. (It’s a sickness that extends to the menresponsible for them. Dubus’s father was but one of many who fell in thrall tohis son’s physical courage; there’s pride in having a bad-ass in the family.)And he gives as equally a clear-eyed account of how he escaped that deathspiral.
Dubus found deliverancein books and in higher learning. His transformation from human wrecking ball toa man strong enough to renounce violence is no small triumph. That his brotherand sister also find their way out of the same morass, though not without scarsof all sorts, is something of a miracle. They are, however, the lucky ones.They’re bright, even gifted, and have the benefit of a wonderful if imperfectmother whose dedication to her children’s welfare is heroic. Dubus notes allthe guys who didn’t survive. Townieis a lament for them, and a blistering reminder for the rest of us who may haveforgotten how fraught the path is to adulthood.
Oscar Villalon is the managingeditor of ZYZZYVA, a literary journaldedicated to publishing the work of West Coast writers and artists. He’s alsothe former book editor at the SanFrancisco Chronicle.