Andre Dubus III Scores a Knockout with Townie

To the list of fine books I’ve read thus far this year, I’m adding Townie, by Andre Dubus III. Unlike Dubus’ earlier impressive work, The House of Sand and Fog, Townie is not a novel, but a memoir.

It’s a searing book, unsparing both of himself and his famous father, but it is not a book of blame. It’s a book about the raw pain he experienced when his parents split and his father left. About the helplessness he felt as a short, weak child in a thuggish neighborhood. The physical violence repeatedly inflicted on him and his siblings in the New England mill town where he grew up. His willed transformation, though barbells and boxing, into a bulked up, powerful and dangerous young man with a killer instinct, quick to avenge any hurt to himself or his family and friends. It’s about learning to throw the first punch and never look back, not quitting until whoever had threatened him lay bloodied and beaten on the ground. But it’s also – and most important – about his transformation beyond that sometimes vicious young man into a person who came to dread the creature he’d become, and to realize the isolating and self-perpetuating nature of violence, and how the harm he’d done to others had eroded something essential and important in himself.

What may come as a surprise is that, for Dubus, most of that makeover was accomplished through writing.

A surprise, yet not a surprise. The discipline of weight training gave way to the discipline of writing. Writing true became the substitute for the one-two punch. Going deep into the characters he was creating, becoming them, feeling their own hurt and pain and rage, created compassion. He became himself, he discovered, only when he could become one of them. It’s a startlingly honest work of self-reflection.

But in case this makes Townie sound like an analytical treatise, it’s not. It’s a story: a beautiful, haunting, exciting yarn. Touching, thrilling, and absolutely compelling. As expertly crafted as a fine novel. Dozens of memorable characters sprout from its pages. Enormous attention is paid to details of places, sounds, smells. It just happens to be true, or as true as Dubus could make it, which means true on the inside, and true on the outside.

I rarely read memoirs. I might never have read this one had I not had the opportunity to meet the author a few months ago at the Crosby Hotel in New York City. The event was Michael Maren’s “Writers on Film” series, where well-known authors pick movies that have deep resonance for them. For Dubus, it was Scorcese’s “Mean Streets,” which he selected, he explained, because of its particularly honest depiction of street violence.
I saw Dubus again a few weeks later at the AWP conference in Boston and he remarked from the dais that what he admired most about his father was his compassion, his generosity and his courage.

In my brief chat with him on that earlier evening in New York, I found him to be a genuinely nice man, and what he wrote in my copy of his book I attribute to his own generosity of spirit, just as the book itself is a testament to his courage. But what I value most are the last two words before his signature: “Stay true.”

Something he’s obviously done himself. And it wasn’t easy.

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