JR: I sent Morgan down to Book Soup to see an old friend of the blog, Andre Dubus. The Garden of Last Days was one of the first books we talked about on the blog. I know some people didn’t care for my take on one of the main characters in that novel, but, that’s life. Here is what Morgan has to say:
MM: Andre Dubus III read from his memoir Townie at Book Soup last week. I’m glad I went early; the store was packed a full forty minutes before the start of the reading, but by then I was already tucked snugly into the second row.
Dubus calls Townie an “accidental memoir” because it started as an essay about how he managed to go his entire childhood without knowing anything about baseball, and, “500 pages later, here we are.” The book chronicles Dubus’s upbringing in the hard-edged, working class mill towns of Massachusetts, the second oldest in a brood of kids who had to raise themselves.
Dubus’s mother, in her early twenties and strapped with four kids – “really just another kid in the house” – had to work day and night to put food (of which there was often a shortage) on the table. Andre senior, well, we know what he was doing. The two were divorced, and Dubus senior is absent for most of the book, sidling in sporadically to get drunk with Andre when his personal life collapses again and again.
There were about sixty people at Book Soup to listen to Dubus, and you could hear every shift of foot in the place as he read a scene from the first part of the book, one in which he lands himself in jail along with his brother and his best friend.
Dubus speaks with that hard Boston lilt, that “whatchew gonna do bout it?!” vocal swagger popularized recently by The Fighter, and he really turns it on when he’s reading. His body, too, is animated by a fighter’s bravado. When he’s really hitting on a point, he affects a boxer’s physical nuances: a pulling back, a bracing, a short fast jab.
But Dubus isn’t a fighter anymore. “That’s one of the things I hope this book is about,” he says. “That violence creates more violence, suffering more suffering.” And while the fighter in him is still evident in a superficial way, Dubus has no guard up. He’s wide open, accessible, and that’s what makes the bravado interesting, because it’s absolutely a part of his person, not a show. He gets emotional and revelatory when talking about his parents -“I swear, even when they were with other people, I swear they’d sneak off and make love” – and he winces when recounting painful memories of his sisters.
Dubus says that his mother and siblings (Andre Dubus senior died in 1999) were supportive of his writing the memoir (which he pronounces ‘mem-wah’). Someone in the crowd asked if he’d have gone ahead with it anyway, had they not been onboard. It’s an easy question, but still an interesting one, and one I think all writers, not just memoirists, have to face at some point. This one especially: Townie airs some deeply disturbing personal laundry. There’s rape, molestation, parental neglect, gross violence, kids doing drugs and having sex before they’re teenagers.
Dubus responded by saying that he’d initially written a first draft devoid of all that, focusing instead on his obsession with strength training and fighting, and later, his discovery that he wanted to be a writer – “I was twenty-two years old, and I didn’t want to be a writer. But I just knew I had to write to stay alive, to stay me.”
But then a family friend “sat me down and read the draft, and said, ‘But buddy, how can you write your story without writing that? That’s part of your story too.’ And so much of that rage that I tapped into when I was a fighter came from my family, came from just how shitty it was, how miserable I felt and how helpless I felt, and you know, as the oldest son, I felt it was up to me to be the man.”
The word “violence” often appears in the heading of reviews for Townie. And yes, there is a lot of it. Much of the book recounts, in detail, Dubus learning to deliver near-fatal blows to the face. But for me, the book isn’t so much about violence as it about authority, and the ways we seek to find authority in our lives where we sense there is none.
In the case of Dubus and his siblings, there was little authority to speak of, both parents being essentially absent, and so each was forced to find his or her own way to possess and control themselves. For Andre, it was fighting, and later, writing, and through these things he was able to gain a sense of authority over himself and his life, over his mom’s house, the protection of his siblings, his relationship with his father. But it felt like something was missing; when I finished the book, I felt like he’d never gained agency over one of the most influential characters in the book: the setting. The towns Dubus describes in the pages of Townie, the streets, the guttedness of the life there, the poverty: I didn’t feel like he’d come to own it. I asked him if he’d been able to get a grasp on that stuff while writing the book.
He responded, “Are you a therapist?” And after everyone laughed, and he’d had a moment to take in my question, he sighed and said, “You know, people always ask me if writing is cathartic, and I hate that word because writing is so often the opposite of cathartic….But this book was cathartic, and I didn’t realize why until just this minute, when you asked that question. It was because I was finally able to get that sense of control on the one thing I’d never been able to, I was able to get a hold on the place, just like you said.” He smiled.
It was a lively event, but I could feel the weight underneath all of these people gathered together to hear a man speak about a childhood that was, frankly, pretty grim. Dubus knew many of the people there, and several were from his hometown. Once or twice he interrupted himself to call out to someone in the back, “Patti? Patti Johnson? Oh my god! I haven’t seen you in twenty years. How are you honey?!” and everyone would look back at Patti, and she’d smile and lock eyes with Dubus for a moment, both of them suspended in a time and place the rest of us can’t even begin to fathom.
- Open Book: Townie, by Andre Dubus III (arts.nationalpost.com)
- ‘Townie’ Reveals the Violent Evolution of a Writer (abcnews.go.com)
- ‘Townie’: Andre Dubus III’s memoir of growing up literate and tough (seattletimes.nwsource.com)