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Townie: A Memoir
Andre Dubus III
W. W. Norton & Company, 2012
400 pp., $15.95
Christina Bieber Lake
Fighting < Writing
Anyone who has seen the recent film The Fighter, depicting Lowell boxer Micky Ward, will get a pretty good image of the kind of Massachusetts town the novelist Andre Dubus III grew up in. Haverhill, like Lowell, is an industrial town on the Merrimack River with high levels of poverty, drug use, and young men who seem always to be looking for a fight. It's the kind of place for which the adjective hard-scrabble was invented. A town like Haverhill shapes a person, and its presence in Dubus III's memoir Townie is one of the book's most impressive features. The other is the absence—in Dubus III's life, not in the book—of his famous writer father, Andre Dubus.
Although Townie begins with the teenaged Andre Dubus III (I'll call him Andre) telling the story of going running with his father, it quickly moves back in time to Andre's childhood. He and his three younger siblings were raised primarily by their mother, whom Dubus pere (I'll call him Pop) left for a younger woman when Andre was ten. After describing the few short but relatively happy years when the family was together, Andre chronicles a series of moves around the area, during which his mother struggled to provide them with food and care. Though Pop did pay child support, Andre and his brother and sisters were often left on their own. Not surprisingly, they got into trouble. In Newburyport, "kids roamed around the neighborhood like dogs," and
there was the day-and-night swearing and shouting of men and women fighting; we could hear the lowriders revving their engines out front of the Hog Penny Head Shop down the block; there was the constant rumble of motorcycles two streets over. On the hottest days you could smell the wood from the lumberyard on the other side of Water Street, the piss and shit of the drunks in the weeds, the engine exhaust, the sweet lead of the paint flaking off our clapboards.
Andre felt constantly threatened by local tough boys who would hurl insults without provocation. He began to ...