A History of Violence
I began Townie expecting to be disappointed. Andre Dubus, Sr. is one of my favorite writers. His single-minded devotion to his work was not unknown to me, but I was steeling myself nonetheless, expecting an unhappy awakening along the lines of Carol Sklenicka’s biography of Raymond Carver.
Amazingly, Dubus, Jr. manages write honestly without blaming his parents, making it clear both did their best. There is no question Andre, Sr. might have been a more attentive father, but his son offers an explanation without quite excusing him. Dubus, Sr. was like so many artists: the art came first, wives, girlfriends, and children second, or here, third, for Dubus, Sr. was a passionate runner before he pulled his car over to assist a motorist, paying for his generosity with his legs when he was hit by another vehicle.
As for mother Pat, she worked full-time, struggling to pay the rent, keep the car running, the children clothed and fed. In forgiving his parents, Andre, Jr. conveys their intelligence, talents, and strengths so that the reader, instead of disliking them, is filled with admiration.
For those unfamiliar with the family Dubus, some clarification is in order. Andre Dubus, Sr., (he was actually the second, but wrote as Andre Dubus) is the author of numerous short stories and non-fiction. Perhaps his most famous works are “We Don’t Live Here Anymore”, made into a film starring Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern, and “In The Bedroom”, made into a film starring Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson.
Dubus is also famous for the aforementioned 1986 hit-and-run accident that left him wheelchair-bound for the remainder of his life. He wrote movingly of coming to terms with life in a wheelchair, most notably in Meditations from a Moveable Chair.
Andre Dubus III is Andre Dubus, Sr.’s eldest son, writer of the bestselling House of Sand and Fog.
In Townie, Andre recounts his childhood and coming of age in the rough, dying mill towns of Massachusetts. While ultimately redemptive, Townie is a raw account of pain, poverty, and violence. Reading it is often difficult. I’ve never read a memoir and felt so acutely the pain of writing it.
It’s become popular to knock memoir writing as a genre, and some particularly whiny or false works open themselves to this sort of criticism, while others—Ann Hood’s Comfort and Lucia Perillo’s I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing come to mind—evoke sympathy and awe in the reader. Rarely does one read a memoir and think: this must’ve been hell to write. Yet how else can we confront Andre’s sensitive treatment of his elder sister Suzanne’s rape? And how does one make peace with an absent father, one who fails to recognize his son’s violence as destructive, proudly announcing to his writer friends that his son is a boxer?
Andre’s parents divorced when he was 11. Prior to the divorce, the family lived well. Andre describes watching Batman with neighbor Kurt Vonnegut and Pat’s lavish Creole meals. But with the divorce came wrenching change. Pat moved her four children to Newburyport, Massachusetts, well before gentrification. It was as if the family had set up amongst barbarians, people who communicated with fists and knives, helping themselves to whatever was available, be it another child’s bicycle or an unwilling body. Men beat their wives; their wives hit back. Bars were places to smoke, drink, and beat the living hell out of somebody who looked at you askance.
Andre, a small, fearful child, did his best to avoid the throngs of bullies who taunted and leered from every corner. His was a neighborhood where simply sitting outside invited a beating. He hated himself for his inability to fight, his debilitating fear, even as his brother, Jeb, was badly beaten by neighborhood kids and his home gradually became the parentless house where kids partied daily. Soon Andre, Suzanne, and Jeb were cutting school in favor of pot and booze.
Despite Pat’s job and Andre, Sr.’s child support, there wasn’t enough money to live in decent neighborhoods or eat adequately. The family moved frequently. Dinners of gumbo and dirty rice gave way to Spam, Frito pies, and canned foods. One night Andre found his siblings chipping away at some frozen tortillas, the only food in the house. On paydays Pat piled the kids into the car for “mystery drives”, culminating in treats of burgers and fries, followed by a visit to the movies.
While overwhelmingly a memoir of violence, Townie is also an exploration of duality. As Andre grows from a timid, undersized kid to an angry, muscular teenager, the face he turns toward the world is increasingly at odds with the sensitive, thoughtful young man within. If the book has one flaw, it is the endless recounting of Andre’s many fights. His recall for those involved and what happened in each is remarkable; but as in an unremittingly violent film, the viciousness, however ugly, becomes numbing, as do the smoky bars filled with loud music and desperate, trapped people looking for action on a Saturday night. What doesn’t numb is Dubus’s growing unease, his sense that despite the temporary release fighting affords, the cost to his soul is steep.
Andre, Sr.’s presence is shadowy. Though he sees his children weekly, he has little direct involvement in their daily lives. Thus he is largely unaware of his daughter Suzanne’s drug dealing, which sometimes puts food on the table, or the unsavory boys she dates. He has no idea that artistic, dreamy Jeb, at 13, has been taken up by a 35-year-old teacher who buys the boy sheet music, art supplies, and takes him to bed.
Although he’s aware of Andre, Jr.’s violent tendencies, he’s proud of them, at times making vicarious attempts to join in. More than once he accompanies his son to a bar, hoping for combat. Andre Sr., with his rigid daily writing schedule, perfectly trimmed beard, and Akubra hats, has no idea of the life his eldest boy inhabits. And as much as Andre, Jr. wishes to enlighten him, the words never come.
As Andre grows from adolescence into young adulthood, he moves between worlds, bodybuilding and boxing at local gyms while intermittently attending college, where he sometimes runs into his father at parties. He falls for a lovely young Persian woman, Marjan, who introduces him to her family. Andre comes to love Marjan’s family, their immaculate home, the quiet and warmth so different from his chaotic household. He begins learning Persian and acquiring an understanding of the culture, utterly unaware his experience with this sweet woman will become the kernel of a masterwork.
Even as Andre discovers the life of the mind, a grittier reality holds the upper hand. In a particularly horrifying passage, he describes his sister Suzanne’s rape at the hands of two men who are never apprehended. The men leave Suzanne standing on a Boston street in nothing but a blouse. She is saved from freezing to death by a compassionate cabdriver. Afterward her father will begin carrying guns; he had three on his person at the time of his accident.
Seeking escape, Andre attends college in Austin, where he moves uneasily between banging skulls into pavement and reading Marxist tracts. There is no reconciliation between the animals who call his gentle friend Kourosh a “Camel jockey,” and his need to beat them senseless (in this rare instance, Kourosh is able to stop him). After college, Andre returns to Massachusetts, where he joins Jeb doing construction work. But his native intelligence increasingly craves more than cheap liquor and bar fights.
One morning, apropos of nothing, Andre sit down in his barren apartment with pen and paper and begins writing. He has no formal training. He has not read the canon. But he is the son of a great writer and an intelligent, educated mother. Writing soon engrosses him. His parents are encouraging. He is soon publishing. Life takes a final turn from violence when Andre meets Fontaine, a dancer and artist whose calm, steady ambition serves as both example and bolster.
Dubus marries Fontaine. His writing career blossoms. So does his relationship with his father, who, with three busted marriages, useless legs, and six children, finally acknowledges the importance of family. The men grow close until the day in 1999 when Andre, Jr., in San Francisco on a book tour for House of Sand and Fog, receives a phone call from a sobbing Fontaine. Jeb and a friend found Andre, Sr. slumped in the shower, dead from a heart attack.
Townie’s prose and tone are far different than the pellucid sentences in House of Sand and Fog. This is no criticism: lovely, limpid wording would collapse beneath the subject matter of this often grim memoir. The book is pinned in time with a soundtrack of Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, and “The Bee Gees…a song I hated from a movie I hated…”
People drive Camaros, Chevelles, and Monte Carlo’s. They wear Dingo boots and leather jackets. Older brothers come home from Viet Nam. Townie is a memoir not only of one man, but of before: home computers, hybrid cars, cell phones, the internet. Andre and his father write by hand or use typewriters. Gasoline is not five dollars a gallon. Nine-eleven is in an unthinkable, unimaginable future.
Would we have wanted to read this book had it been by an unknown writer? A man who had not penned a bestselling novel, a man without a famous father?
Yes, we would. For an explanation of how to emerge, if not unscathed, then intact, from a childhood filled with flying fists and screaming rage. For a deeper understanding of what it means to live a life so limited that baseball games and city of Manhattan are unknown to an American boychild. To better understand the real ramifications of divorce on children, particularly male children, who often feel responsible for their families but are unable to act productively on that feeling. To acknowledge that no child, or teenager, for that matter, should be burdened with the weight of adult concerns like food and shelter. To take responsibility for our children and civilize them lest they terrorize others. To gain insight into why social ills like gangs and teenaged drug abuse remain alluring options for so many young people with virtually no other choices. To sit at the feet of a fine writer, and applaud his work.