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.)