My first job in publishing was as an intern at a tiny publishing house near Boston. The publisher's most noteworthy author was the short story writer and essayist Andre Dubus. When he called on the phone, the whole office stood at attention, ready to fulfill his every request, whether it be additional publicity efforts or a shipment of more copies of the three books of his we had published. I had never heard of Dubus before my summer-long internship, but I quickly learned that he was undeniably talented, charismatic, demanding and, at times, brusque. So I had my own reasons for being absorbed by Dubus's son's memoir of growing up separated from his notable --- and notably distant --- father.
Andre Dubus III, who has in the past decade become probably better known than his father ever was, thanks to THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG and THE GARDEN OF LAST DAYS, grew up primarily on the mean streets of Haverhill, Massachusetts, a mill town along the Merrimack River, full of hopeless people, violence and crime. Raised by their divorced mother, Dubus and his three siblings grew up in an environment where "plastic children's toys would lie on the cracked concrete among cigarette butts and empty nip bottles, and on their sides here and there would be shopping carts for when the car wouldn't start and the welfare checks came in..."
Meanwhile, their father was teaching writing at a nearby liberal arts college, remaining largely mysterious to his children during his periodic Sunday outings to the movie theater and a restaurant, arriving on the scene only for holidays. He seemed to live in a separate sphere, surrounded by rich, attractive young co-eds while his ex-wife never seemed to make ends meet, looking the other way while their children racked up dozens of absences from school each year. As for young Andre, he fended for himself, the brunt of one too many neighborhood bullies. Eventually, he chides himself for his own weakness in the face of the violence that confronts him daily: "I don't care if you get your face beat in, I don't care if you get kicked in the head or stabbed or even shot," he says to himself, "I will never allow you not to fight back ever again. You hear me?" Soon the teenager is lifting weights several hours a day, training at a local boxing gym and holding his own in the fights that punctuate his daily life.
Finally, as Dubus grows into a young man and discovers his own passion for the written word, he begins to rebuild a relationship with his long-distant father, to understand the kind of man --- and artist --- he is. TOWNIE is at once a painfully honest story about growing up in a town with few prospects, about fighting and clawing your way through a childhood, and a neighborhood, that seems hopeless, about rediscovering the man you never knew, about seizing fresh starts, whether through weightlifting or creative pursuits. Dubus's memoir is an essential account of the making of an artist, of the ways in which a young man tries desperately to connect with his distant father while making his own name at the same time.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 4, 2011