Townie

Andre Dubus III's memoir, Townie, should be lauded for a few worthy things. Dubus's story of his once-ideal childhood followed by bereft adolescence—in which his father, the acclaimed author Andre Dubus II, was mostly absent and in which uncertainty, hardship, and aimlessness were constant companions—is a cool examination of the shifting relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. It's also an unsentimental portrayal (and for that reason a welcome and engrossing one) of the lives of writers and the demands of vocation. And it's a rough tribute to the blighted industrial towns of Massachusetts during the '70s, when the feathers were dropping off the wings of prosperity for blue-collar America.

 

But what stands out about Dubus's memoir, which reads like the kind of book a writer has been waiting his whole life to produce—one in which the sentences are unforced and exact, and the voice is placid with wisdom and generosity—is its violence. Townie offers some of the best writing in recent American literature on how common and unremarkable the crunching of noses, the slicing of stomachs, and the stomping of heads is to the experience of a vast number of young men. What's more, the world in which these sometimes appalling fights (if you can call them that; they're closer to whirlwinds of rage) take place isn't quite the one we've been conditioned to expect. These aren't the favelas; we're not in West Baltimore. These are white kids, most of them from the lower-middle class.

 

True, some of them come from more comfortable circumstances than their peers, and some of their parents are even educated. But all of them party, go to school, or plain hang out under a colossal threat, one all the more stunning for how it's downplayed if not outright ignored. And if they survive their teen years? They get to spend their adult days in the mill bars, "darkened, nearly windowless caves filled with men and women drinking and smoking." The kids know the "stories of knifings or shootings in these places, of brawls with guys getting their teeth knocked out, their noses broken, their jaws splintered and having to be wired shut." This is to say nothing of the women who are assaulted or worse.

 

Townie's through-line is the story of how Dubus, who's perhaps best known for his well-received novel House of Sand and Fog, navigated the brutality around him, going from an ineffectual skinny kid who's powerless from stopping a grown man hammering on his kid brother's face, to a hardened boy who tears out the engine of his psyche and reconstructs himself into a hulking weightlifter and sometime boxer who has no problem tearing through the "membrane" of humanity encircling 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—and drained 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 myself wired wrong," Dubus writes, "that now I was stuck with impulses I could not control, ones that could lead to nothing but deeper and deeper trouble."

 

Like womanizing (another badge of indignity earned by teen boys), street fighting is about 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 that deliver diminishing returns. Dubus gives as concrete a dissection of this particular illness as one could hope. (It's a sickness that extends to the men responsible for them. Dubus's father was but one of many who fell in thrall to his 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 death spiral.

 

Dubus found deliverance in books and in higher learning. His transformation from human wrecking ball to a man strong enough to renounce violence is no small triumph. That his brother and sister also find their way out of the same morass, though not without scars of 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 imperfect mother whose dedication to her children's welfare is heroic. Dubus notes all the guys who didn't survive. Townie is a lament for them, and a blistering reminder for the rest of us who may have forgotten how fraught the path is to adulthood.

 


Oscar Villalon is the managing editor of ZYZZYVA, a literary journal dedicated to publishing the work of West Coast writers and artists. He's also the former book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.

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