Saturday, July 2, 2011
Thursday, May 12, 2011
Townie, Andre Dubus III, W.W. Norton & Co., pp.387, $25.95
Andre Dubus III, age 16, was walking through the student union building at Bradford College, in Bradford, MA, where his father, famed short-story writer, Andre Dubus, Jr., taught English and creative writing. Though it had recently admitted men, Bradford, was primarily known as a women’s college.
“So many of them were tall and slim,” the younger Dubus recalls many years later in Townie, his riveting memoir of coming of age in the dying industrial cities along the Merrimack River. “They had long straight hair and straight teeth and straight postures from what I imagined were childhoods spent riding horses and swimming and playing tennis.”
As he made his way to class that day in the early 1970s, a group of these students stood near a picture window that looked out over the well-tended green lawns of the college.
“That’s Dubus’s son,” he overheard one of the young women commenting to her friends: “Look at him. He’s such a townie.”
Though his famous father is dead and Bradford College has closed its doors, Dubus, now the highly acclaimed author of novels like House of Sand and Fog, cannot forget that slur.
“I’d heard it before,” he writes. “They’d used it for the men they’d see at Ronnie D’s bar…plumbers and electricians and millworkers.” Though not yet 18, Dubus was already a full-time college student.
“I enjoyed reading the books,” he writes, “but I was surrounded by people who seemed reared from comfort, most of whom knew where they were headed.” These privileged students all appeared to have aims for the future. “But I didn’t have any,” Dubus admits. “All I wanted to do was bench press 300 pounds and get so big I scared people, bad people, people who could hurt you.”
Townie is the gripping story of what led the son of a professor, who lived in the secluded comfort of a suburban college community, while his former wife and four children endured poverty across the river in working-class Haverhill, to seek strength and self-worth in body building. It’s the account of how a small boy who was bullied became a defender of himself and his siblings in a city where “kids roamed the neighborhood like dogs,” and teen-age girls “just gave it away.”
But this painfully honest memoir isn’t only the story of how a boy who grew up on the mean streets of Haverhill became an accomplished writer; or about how the way he learned to defend himself as a street fighter and trained boxer became both a salvation and potential damnation. It is, most urgently, about how Andre Dubus learned to transform the pain and violence that led him to become that fighter into words, which ultimately saved him. Townie, in all the immediacy of Dubus’s compelling narrative, is at its core a book about the paradoxically redemptive power of violence.
Dubus’s prose, and the distinctive voice it embodies, is the hard-won achievement of the author of three novels and a collection of stories. Its stunning tensions also reflect his father’s precision in matters of the heart, along with Jack Kerouac’s haunting descriptions of the streets of Lowell, so much like those Dubus himself lived and fought on in Newburyport and Haverhill.
Townie is more than a fine memoir. It is the record of a quintessential American life. Its bravura ending, tying together all the disparate strands of an often harrowing childhood and adolescence, is one that only a skilful novelist like Andre Dubus III could have achieved.
“Just go ahead and write,” his father once counseled him. And Dubus has done precisely that—brilliantly.
(This review appeared in the May 2011 "Literary Madness" issue of North Shore Art Throb.)
Thursday, March 24, 2011
There has always been a certain stigma attached to self-publication. When a writer decides to bring out his own book, the unstated but ever present question is: “Why couldn’t you find a publisher?” By a publisher, the asker of such a question usually means a conventional trade publisher. A subsequent, if hidden, assumption is, “If you couldn’t find a publisher—or an agent to represent the book—it can’t be a very good one.” This is the nub of the problem for writers who do not have an agent or who have not published with a major trade publisher.
After I completed a first draft of my novel, Decline of Fishes, I thought about querying agents. I also thought about the current state of the literary market and whether my book would fit into any of the categories—or niches— for commercially marketable books. Each week I read the major book review publications, I visit bookstores, and I scan the “new books” shelves in public libraries, so I have a pretty good idea of what’s being published and who’s publishing it.
Consequently, I asked myself if my novel conformed to any of those categories or if my personal and literary profile matches that of any of the writers currently being published. Aside from the masters like Philip Roth and Thomas Pyncheon, who have their own loyal readerships, or the dwindling number of mid-list writers who remain in print, my work seems to have little in common with that of younger urban-based writers who are publishing today. Surely it has none of the exoticism of post-colonial writing or the linguistic experimentation of recent European immigrants. I don’t write about ethnic subcultures, or about the challenges of contemporary marriage and child rearing. Neither do I write about divorce and the single parent life or the demands on young professionals of corporate culture, so why would an agent be interested in representing me?
Even if I were to find an agent, how long would it take to place my book? And once placed, would it be subject to the kinds of violations a number of writer friends have recently had their fiction and non-fiction subjected to in the editorial process? In other words, would the wait—a long and probably fruitless one—be worth the effort, especially at my age and considering that the subject of my novel—the pressure on traditional cities and towns like Gloucester, Massachusetts to sell out to developers, thereby undermining their indigenous character and culture—is of moment.
On its face, my novel about a group of local activists who oppose the construction of an upscale shopping mall on the city’s working waterfront, just as the fishing industry faces its greatest crisis, sounds like a story that might attract interest. It’s relevant—how many American communities are fighting to preserve the traditional culture and economies of downtowns forced to compete with Wal-Mart or Big Box shopping malls? It’s accessibly written in direct and realistic prose. It has what I have been told are believable characters, who struggle with personal conflicts and a threatened way of life as they fight the mall’s developers. The plot is suspenseful—what kinds of power and money lie behind the attempt to develop the mall? And there is a dramatic payoff. Will the developers get their way? Will the main characters resolve their conflicts; and who will benefit or lose from the final outcome?
I shared my concerns about finding an agent or an appropriate publisher with several writer friends, each of whom had experienced some form of the interventions I have described in the agenting or publication process. One friend had 150 pages cut from her original manuscript and was required to rewrite the book from a more marketable perspective, thereby violating her original intent. Given these concerns and our shared sense of the exigency of my subject, my friends urged me to bring the book out myself.
Five writer friends—one a former senior editor at a prestigious Boston publishing house, another the editor of a national magazine, all of whom have published fiction and non-fiction in major venues—have read and commented upon my book through several revisions. Their comments, criticism and suggestions have helped to shape, sharpen and improve the novel. Considering their experience, I feel that Decline of Fishes has received as much if not more editorial scrutiny than it would have received from a trade publisher. And the book has not been compromised to fit a commercial interest or market.
Fortunately, a local alternative to mainstream publishing already existed. Believing that writers themselves should have ultimate control over the content, editing, design, promotion and distribution of their books, poet and playwright Schuyler Hoffman and I founded the Back Shore Writers Collaborative in 2005. To date we have published two books under the imprint of Back Shore Press, Peter’s Tuttle’s road poem, Looking for a Sign in the West, and my novel, No Fortunes, both of which have been well received and reviewed. We have worked with local artists and designers and regional printing facilities to produce our books and we distribute and sell them through independent booksellers and the Internet.
Along with the incredible support of Janice Severance, owner of the Book Store of Gloucester, two thoughtful and positive reviews (see below) and several local news articles and interviews have helped to launch Decline of Fishes. In the coming months I hope to be doing more public readings. But what has encouraged me the most are the personal communications from friends and readers, who have taken the time to write or email me their responses to my novel. Their helpful and insightful comments have made the years I spent researching and writing this book, often with scant hope of publication, seem worthwhile. I extend to them my deepest gratitude.