Andre Dubus III’s memoir Townie is a harrowing read. It wasn’t quite on the same level of emotional intensity as Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir A Widow’s Story, but it, like Oates’s book, was both hard to put down and hard to shake off once I had put it down. It left me feeling somber and needing a little recovery time afterward. All of which I mean in a positive way — Townie was perhaps a bit too long (as was Oates’s book), but still, awfully good.
It tells the story of Dubus’s experiences growing up poor, first with his mother and his famous writer father, but soon enough with his mother alone, along with his three siblings. Even when the family was together, they never had much money, but his parents’ divorce turned a manageable situation into an extremely precarious one. His mother did her best to keep the family going, but money was always short — the family often went hungry — and the mother was either working or home exhausted and wasn’t able to keep tabs on what the children were doing. They moved frequently and usually lived in rough neighborhoods in decaying Massachusetts towns. These were former mill towns where vacant buildings were everywhere and unemployment was high.
Dubus was small and quickly became a target for bullies. Soon enough he was getting beaten up just about every day and lived in fear of running into the wrong people. Even his home wasn’t safe; knowing there were no adults around, local young people would hold afternoon parties in his living room. There was nothing he could do about it. His siblings tried to help him out by telling their mother about the beatings, but not much came of it.
This story of living in constant fear is one of the main threads of the book; eventually, after years of being bullied and doing nothing about it, Dubus decides he can’t take it anymore, and he begins to lift weights. He also learns how to box at a local gym. It takes a long time, but finally he learns that if he is the one who punches first, if he takes his opponent by surprise, he can win a fight. This is a breakthrough moment, a turn of events that lets him feel proud of himself, finally. But there is a downside: now that he has learned how to let his anger out, he isn’t sure he can control it. He becomes the guy who can defend innocent victims, but he is also the guy who starts fights and sends people to the hospital. Does he really want to be that way and are there better ways to handle his anger?
The other major thread running through the book is his relationship with his father. Dubus the father never fully abandoned his children; he sent money faithfully even though he never had much, and he took them out to dinner on Sundays and spent Wednesday evenings with his kids one at a time so they had a chance to see him on their own once a month. But still, there was so much he never knew about what his kids were going through, and poor as he was, his life was much more comfortable than his ex-wife’s. There are painful scenes where he tries to play catch with his son and learns that the son knows absolutely nothing about catching and throwing a ball or about baseball itself. How was he supposed to learn? Dubus never tells his father the truth about his life, out of shyness and shame. He mostly just felt uneasy around his father and was relieved to get away. As Dubus grows older, his relationship with his father becomes much closer, but he is still left with questions: how much should he tell his father? Would there be any point in hurting his father in that way?
Dubus’s story is riveting, both because of its inherent drama and because of the questions it raises about poverty, rage, and violence, and also about what it takes to leave a difficult childhood behind. Dubus writes extremely well: he conjures up the atmosphere of the mill towns he grew up in and evokes his feelings of hopelessness and fear so powerfully that you feel you are experiencing everything alongside him. I heard Dubus say in an interview that he had tried to write about his childhood in fiction but failed, and it was only in the memoir form that he found he could tell the story. In the book he writes about creating characters who were essentially himself, but the stories were never any good because he was trying too hard to make the reader sympathize with his fictionalized self. I don’t quite know what it was about the transition to nonfiction that made telling his story possible, but something clicked for him, and he has told the story wonderfully.