BY MARC VELASQUEZ
Author: Andre Dubus III
Filed Under: Literary, Memoir, Nonfiction
I had well-defined expectations about Townie before I’d ever actually opened it. I’d read too much about it going in, about the violence and the street fighting, the one-punch knockouts that sent men to the hospital choking down their own teeth. Even the cover and the flap copy will lead you to believe that this book is about a street-tough kid punching his way through the world.
But Andre Dubus III’s memoir is much more than a fighter’s tale. It’s about filling the voids in one’s life, voids left primarily by absent parents. It’s about the wounds violence creates; about the emotion, or lack of emotion required to be violent towards another human being. It’s about the difference between creativity and destruction. And ultimately, it’s about redemption, not only for the memoirist, but for his father as well.
In other words, it wasn’t at all what I expected, but it turned out to be a whole lot more.
The older Dubus (for clarity, I’ll call the father Dubus, and the son, the author of Townie, Andre) plays a large role in Townie—it would be fair to say that his presences and absences in young Andre’s life do as much to move the narrative forward as does Andre’s penchant for violence. Andre could have been upset with his father—Dubus divorced his wife and basically abandoned his family—and yet Andre is even-handed when portraying his father’s shortcomings.
In one of the book’s more poignant scenes, Dubus attempts to have a catch with teenage Andre while the two grill outside Dubus’s house where Andre doesn’t live. While they are able to find a ball, neither has a glove. Not only is it the first time Andre has ever played catch, it is the first time he has ever even heard of baseball. Dubus—an ardent baseball fan—is stunned at this strange gap in his son’s development, and a bit ignorant that he is mostly at fault. Yet the memoirist writes those pages without judgment, letting the moment stand for itself, sad and powerful. That power would have been lost had Andre used the moment to tell us how he felt.
The last quarter of the book centers on Dubus’s tragic accident.* In those pages, we see Dubus—an avid runner who could have been devastated by the amputation of his leg and permanent confinement to a wheelchair—deepen his faith and become a more attentive father, grandfather, and friend. Again this is a deft choice as Andre uses his father’s redemption as a parent to mirror his own redemption from violence. It’s admirable, in fact, that he writes of his father with such love, forgiveness, and empathy.
But that isn’t to say there is no violence. There is plenty of skull crushing in Townie, plenty of knockouts and bloody faces. And Andre portrays the adrenaline-fueled experience of fighting quite accurately. If you’ve never hit someone, the seconds before you do feel a lot like this:
Somewhere in the shadows of myself, a small quiet voice said, That’s enough. Just leave it here. Don’t do anything unless they do… But the man was sneering up at me or maybe he wasn’t, maybe it was fear I saw, or appeasement, but I’d forgot how hard it was to stop the movement once it started, and I didn’t want to stop it anyway.
The violence and destruction in Andre’s life takes a deep emotional toll, and he isn’t afraid to mine those emotional depths for meaning.Yet his self-examination never comes across as a preachy warning or as extended, superfluous navel-gazing. Throughout it all, Andre is an apt and entertaining guide out of the depths in which he once found himself.
Townie is a well-crafted memoir written by an author who knows when to speak and when to let the story stand for itself. And there are knockouts, too. It’s well worth the read.
Similar reads: All Souls, by Michael Patrick MacDonald. I also found myself wanting to read the work of the older Dubus. Readers of Townie will find the older Dubus’s short story The Winter Father and his essay Witness of interest.
*Dubus pulled over on I-93 to help a car stranded in the middle of the road. He helped the car’s two passengers, a young man and woman, out of their car. Dubus then tried to flag down an oncoming vehicle which inexplicably swerved towards the young man and woman. Dubus pushed the woman out of the way, but the car struck both Dubus and the young man. The young man died instantly; Dubus was severely injured.