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Townie: A Memoir
Townie: A Memoir
Andre Dubus III
W. W. Norton & Company, 2012
400 pp., 17.95

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Christina Bieber Lake

Fighting < Writing

A memoir by Andre Dubus III.

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 admire Charles Bronson in the Death Wish movies, and Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. "When I thought of the word man, I could only think of those who could defend themselves and those they loved." Andre began to drink and take drugs in order to avoid getting insulted and having to fight.

Learning how to fight—and then how to let go of fighting—is the central story in Townie. Andre figures out that drugs are not going to help him as much as the local gym, and by age sixteen he spends a lot of time there, bulking up. He learns how to box, gains confidence, and successfully defends himself in a bar fight. But then he finds the feeling he gets from this power irresistible, and begins to look for fights. He knows it's not a good idea, but the need to prove himself physically has become an addiction. Some of the strongest scenes in the book depict how Andre saw himself in these moments, as poised there, knowing he is about to "break through the membrane" that is between his fist and another man's face. He later describes this membrane as a "barrier between what was and what would be."

The triumph of Andre's life is that he learns to reconfigure this need to prove himself, and he does it, as his father had done, through writing. It is not so much like Richard Wright, whose early struggles with poverty and racism taught him to think of words as weapons, but more like a man who discovers that what he really wants is to break through the membrane in a different way, to connect with others rather than to fight them. When he reads a story by one of his father's students, he begins to see people differently; he begins to imagine their stories, to inhabit them. Soon he tries his own hand at telling these stories. He learns from his own characters that planting his feet and throwing a punch is not the only thing he can do when confronted. Thus the climax of the book comes toward the end, when he is tempted to fight a couple of drug dealers to protect some women and children he is sitting with in a train, but he talks them out of their aggression by pointing out what they have in common:

[N]ow I wasn't going to throw a punch, even if the dealer was to step away from the wall and square off to shut me up; I wasn't going to fight him either, and it was as if, in my explanation to him, I had stood between those trains and taken off my clothes, then began to pull away every muscle I'd ever built; I ripped off the plate of my pectorals, dropping them at my feet. I reached up to each shoulder and unhooked both deltoids and let them fall, too; then I reached around for the muscles of my upper back, the first to show up years earlier, and dropped them at the feet of the dark dealer, speaking to him all along as if I'd never learned to do anything but talk, as if this armor I'd forged had never been needed because I could trust the humanity of the other to show itself. Trust. I was going to trust this stranger, this man who had entered my train car and not to talk. I was going to trust him to see and to listen and to do the right thing.

If you're familiar with Andre's father's prose, you'll immediately recognize the similarities between this passage and a similar one in "Giving up the Gun," in which Pop has to learn the same kind of lesson, and turns himself over to "the invisible palm of God." For Andre and for his father, writing became the way to become better versions of themselves, to see dilemmas clearly and to work through them. Pop had been the master of writing about dilemmas that make and/or prove one's character, like "A Father's Story" and "Killings." Andre's novels bear this mark, too, House of Sand and Fog being the richest of these.

These striking similarities in vision and approach to writing make Pop's absence from Andre's life even more stunning and dismaying. As a long-time teacher of Pop's prose, I couldn't help reading Andre's book to help me fill the holes in my knowledge of Pop's life, beyond the bare facts: his six children, his ubiquitous drinking, his stint in the Marines, his penchant for carrying guns, his three failed marriages. And the book confirmed many of my suspicions. Pop shared with his own father a masculine shyness that kept him from deeply connecting with his children; he was more like an occasional buddy you meet up with in a bar than a father to Andre. Andre would often see him flirting with the young undergraduates from Bradford College, where his father taught. When Pop left his first wife, it was for one of these pretty undergrads, and Andre relates how, as a ten-year-old, he saw the woman's picture and went in to tell his own mother, "Dad's girlfriend is prettier than you are, Mom." When Pop left his second wife, it was for a woman the same age as his daughter, Suzanne. It is astonishing to discover that Pop, an avid fan, had never taken Andre to a Red Sox game as a boy. Nor did he teach him to play baseball, or any other sport.

But for all the hurt Andre felt because of his father's absence, he goes out of his way to be fair and loving toward him. Regarding the Red Sox, he guesses that it must have been because it cost too much money on a teacher's salary. He speaks of his father's shyness, and the needs of his writing. Andre clearly admires his father's writing, which played a big role in his choice to become a writer himself. After reading Pop's short story "Killings," Andre writes, "there was the feeling that something important had just been revealed to me, that my father had created many stories like the one I'd just read and that's where most of him had been my whole life, in those pages, with people like the father who had lost his son."

Andre's careful tone throughout can perhaps be attributed to the fact that later in his life, his relationship with his father improved. Pop was hit by a car when he stopped to help some motorists on the side of the road, and he lost one leg and the use of the other. Pop's essays on how writing and his Catholic faith helped him through all of this—Meditations from a Moveable Chair and Broken Vessels—make up two of the best collections I have ever read. Clearly, the event changed him; he learned to trust God more; he gave up his guns. More important to Andre, his father slowed down, became more present to everyone, and began to hold backyard parties at his house for the extended family. All of this does not take away the fact of Andre's father's absence, and of Andre becoming the young boy "who wanted to know one thing: Where were you when I needed you?", but it does give him greater undestanding of his father and of his own struggles as well.

Andre learned what he learned the hard way. Though he had respect for Pop's Catholicism, he hasn't turned to it, or to any faith tradition. But to read Pop's essays side by side with Townie is to recognize just how much these men had in common. They had to learn how to prove themselves as men, violently—and then how to let that go. It is too bad that a legacy of reticent masculinity, of leaving wives and mothers and of missed opportunities, meant that both of them had had to do so largely on their own.

Christina Bieber Lake is associate professor of English at Wheaton College.

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