Sunday, February 27, 2011

TOWNIE: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III

The new memoir from Andre Dubus III - Townie: A Memoir - is reviewed in the New York Times. I mention it here (and share the review) because the book is about the relationship between a father and his children - this one from the children's point of view. And unlike many memoirs of coming of age in the 1970s, it's a different world, one without a father (this book is described as a rebuttal to his well-known short story, "The Winter Father").

Rough Boys

One Saturday night in the mid-’70s, I stood on the deck of a shabby duplex watching my teenage boyfriend — a character who could have walked out of the pages of Andre Dubus III’s powerful new memoir, “Townie” — beat another boy senseless in the parking lot below. Under the yellowish dusk-to-dawn lights, I could see my boyfriend’s blond sideburns, denim jacket and dingo boots, and I could see him punch the boy in the stomach until he crumpled to the ground, then kick him over and over until his nose and lips were split and bleeding. In “Townie,” which details Dubus’s 1970s coming-of-age in the poor mill towns of Massachusetts, there are none of the usual signifiers of today’s ’70s Nostalgia Industrial Complex, no peace-sign key chains or smiley-face T-shirts, none of the goofy stoners and ditsy girls in tube tops that American television viewers have become accustomed to on “That ’70s Show.” Instead, Dubus writes about “the apartments” where his older sister buys drugs, two rows of three-story buildings surrounded by packed dirt worn smooth, a Dumpster in back always filled with dirty diapers, used condoms and pizza boxes. He writes about an early manifestation of “Fight Club” culture at his school, where, whenever there is a fight, boys and girls rush to one spot “like they were being pulled there by the air itself. . . . Kids were yelling: ‘Kill him! Kill him!’ ”
Author Andre Dubus III

TOWNIE: A Memoir

By Andre Dubus III
387 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $25.95.

It was his parents’ divorce that left Dubus fatherless and living in a world of violence and poverty. Dubus’s father (and namesake) was a well-known writer, famous among other things for his short story “The Winter Father,” about a man recently separated from his family. The most vivid image in the story is of the protagonist watching through his rearview mirror as his young son chases after him: “A small running shape in the dark, charging the car, picking up something and throwing it, missing, crying You bum You bum You bum.

“Townie” in many ways reads like one long rebuttal to “The Winter Father.” In the father’s telling, there is no sense of financial desperation on the kids’ side, and it takes just six months for the father to feel connected again to his children and the children to feel safe. In reality, his father’s departure left Dubus’s family vulnerable for years, his mother always working and exhausted, their series of rented houses always dirty and often filled with “Heads,” teenagers smoking pot while blasting Aerosmith. A neighbor kid beats Andre up daily, hurling obscenities and insults his way. A drunk urinates in their hallway and a greaser throws a Molotov cocktail into his mother’s car.

The family’s exposure affects each of the Dubus children differently. Andre’s younger sister, Nicole, puts a padlock on her bedroom door and retreats behind it; his older sister, Suzanne, deals drugs and is later gang-raped; his sensitive younger brother, Jeb, starts an affair with his former art teacher, a woman 22 years older, and attempts suicide. For his part, Andre takes up weight lifting. He begins a careful and ritualized effort to bulk up, reading Muscle Builder magazine and arranging a bench and weights in the basement. He works out the way competitive bodybuilders do, dividing his body into muscle groups, eating only tuna and eggs. Soon he can bench press 150 pounds and then 200, curl 80 and perform 1,000 situps. He learns to box, to wrap his hands, put on gloves and hit the bag as hard as he can. It’s not long before he is using these skills in bars and parking lots. The first time he punches a guy who has kicked his brother down a flight of bar stairs, he experiences a sort of ecstasy: “I could feel my weight sink back on my right foot, my arms go loose at my sides, and it was as if I were in a warm bath under a blue sky.”

Dozens of fights follow, including a brawl at a restaurant. These combats are lovingly detailed, almost overly descriptive, as Dubus tries to connect to the mythic struggle of male avengers throughout history. As I read these passages I thought about how, when I was growing up, fights were inevitable. How the young men were humorless and easily offended. One boy would throw out a halfhearted insult and the other would fling his arm back and the two would be on top of each other, the fighting all the more intense and bloody because neither had anything to lose. Dubus sees himself as his family’s protector, but in my own experience these fights were less about right and wrong and more about degraded teenagers who’d developed an unhealthy blood lust. Only after challenging his sister’s old boyfriend does Dubus sense he’s become addicted to the upside-down intimacy of throwing a punch. “This was different from sex, where if you both want it, the membranes fall away,” he writes. “With violence you had to break that membrane yourself, and once you learned how to do that, it was easier to keep doing it.”

As Dubus grows into a man he begins to write stories and struggles to dissolve his attachment to violence. He struggles, too, to come to terms with his larger-than-life father. That doesn’t mean escaping him — to the contrary, he attends the same college where his father teaches, and arrives at undergraduate parties to find his father already there, wearing a cowboy hat, getting drunk and flirting with the girls. The father acts like a buddy to his son, not a dad. Worst of all, he is proud that his son can fight. He himself carries a gun, and when he hears that his daughter’s husband has hit her, he and Dubus make a late-night long-distance call to California, looking for someone to break the man’s legs.

Only when the father is hit by a car and paralyzed, in 1986, does he finally mellow, letting father and son find healthier common ground. As this fine memoir closes, Dubus is concerned with a fundamental question: Can he care for a father who did not really take care of him? To the book’s credit (and the author’s), he does not lean on easy redemption. Instead he finds tactile ways to support his dad, helping him to work out his upper body and renovating his house to make it wheelchair friendly. Although he’s never able to discuss the life he led with his siblings on the other side of the river, he enjoys this time with his “new father.” But while he eventually forgives his dad, the pain of abandonment does not dissipate. After hearing of his father’s death in 1999, the first thing he thinks of is his leaving the family years earlier, as if that first leave-taking was the real death. The image that haunted his father, of the boy following the car, is no less haunting for the son. His father saw that boy — it was Andre’s brother, Jeb — getting smaller as the car pulled away. Andre watched as the car got smaller in the distance, and Jeb scooped up a handful of gravel and ran down the hill, throwing rocks that scattered across the road like shrapnel and shouting: “You bum! You bum! You bum!”

Darcey Steinke’s most recent book is the memoir “Easter Everywhere.”

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