Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Townie naked in its candor

Book 43: Townie by Andre Dubus III

It's not remarkable that Andre Dubus III became a successful writer.  It is remarkable that he ever lived to do so.

In Townie, Dubus charts his journey from an impoverished childhood filled with the constant threat of violence to his first tender efforts at writing to his successful career as an author and his marriage and the birth of his children.

A significant part of the memoir is devoted to his relationship with his father, the celebrated author Andre Dubus.  Dubus the elder was missing from large chunks of his children's lives. His role as a writer and teacher took precedence over that of father and husband.

Curiously, for such a perceptive writer, Dubus the elder seemed largely oblivious to the impact of his absence in his children's lives.  He is puzzled to learn that Dubus the younger has never thrown a baseball or does not know who the Red Sox are. He is also unaware that his children rarely have enough to eat, that they roam the neighborhood unattended, experimenting with alcohol and other drugs or that his two sons live in fear of beatings by older, stronger boys.

It is those beatings, and the fear of them, that initially shape Dubus the younger.  He begins to work out with free weights and learns to box.  Even as he learns to defend himself, he struggles with an interior rage born of fear, anger, a deep-rooted sense of injustice and -- one can only guess -- his father's absence. 

Townie is the story of how Dubus the younger comes to terms with his rage through writing. It is also a story of how he comes to term with a father who more of a pal than a dad.  Dubus's father was not there to teach his son baseball or to fill an amazing lacuna of knowledge that most of us simply take for granted.

But Dubus did bequeath his son talent as a writer and, more importantly, the confidence to explore that talent and to find his unique voice as an author.

Throughout the book, Dubus the younger talks of acquaintances imprisoned or dead.  Near the end of the memoir he stumbles on the graveyard of a teenage running mate who was stabbed to death in his twenties. A reader can't escape the sense that Dubus was spared such a fate because of the interior transformation he underwent through the act of writing. That was his father's ultimate gift. 

Townie is a powerful book, naked in its candor and self-awareness.  Unsparing in both anger and love.

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