One of the most surprising things about Townie is that its author, Andre Dubus III, is still around to tell his story of growing up in the rough neighbourhoods of a depressed Massachusetts mill town. It is astonishing that he didn’t end up floating in the polluted Merrimack river and, instead, became the author of well-regarded short stories and novels such as House of Sand and Fog (1999).
His early years were unpromising. His father, Andre Dubus II, a US marine-turned-writer, abandoned Andre’s mother and siblings. His mother, a social worker, was too busy trying to make ends meet to look after her four children. The family moved around often. Always an outsider, Andre was bullied at school. It did not take him long to learn the first lesson of survival: “That cruelty was cruelty and you don’t ask why, just hit first and hit hard.” Witnessing a classmate getting beaten up was a thrilling revelation. “I liked seeing this. I liked seeing [his] head bounce against the hard floor, I liked seeing the blood splattering across his nose and mouth and chin, and I especially liked how tightly his eyes were shut against the fear, and the pain.”
But being on the receiving end of such blows was hardly fun: “The first punch was a green flash behind my eyes, the second a white shard, the third a dark mist, the fourth a muffled thud. By then I’d have curled up on the sidewalk or whatever backyard he’d found me in and he’d kick my back and head and legs.”
The only way to protect himself and his family, Andre decides, is to be feared. Like the cartoon wimp who bulks himself up by following the Charles Atlas method, he takes up weightlifting. It works. “I had muscles now. They weren’t big … but enough that people glanced at my chest and upper arms, took in my shoulders. There was the feeling that a good thing was happening to me.”
Yet simmering beneath the hefty musculature is a destructive rage that underpins his increasingly impulsive behaviour. “I couldn’t remember feeling this good about anything in my life ever before,” he says about thumping a man who picked on his brother. “Since that one punch, it was as if I’d knocked a sandbag loose inside me and now a torrent of bad feeling had pushed aside all the other sandbags and I needed another place for it all to go. Another face.”
Fighting comes naturally after that – simply a matter of letting himself be dragged along by the “headlong pull” of violence. But as he reaches the end of his adolescence, dissatisfaction gnaws at him. “It was time to move on,” he says, “a feeling I’d been getting more and more lately, this pull to get out of this town and go far, far away. I was 18, and what was there to do here but go to bars like this where I stood or sat with my back to the wall, scanning the room for trouble, scanning the room for another chance to prove myself to myself.”
The story may have taken place in Massachusetts rather than New Jersey but still there is an air of Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics about some of these passages – the bright boy longing to escape the town full of angry losers who fritter away their lives driving around, drinking and brawling (indeed, Springsteen is quoted in the book’s epigraph). Dubus might have ended up like one of them had it not been for his attempts to connect with the one man who refused, or was unable, to play a more significant role in his life: his father.
While the tearaway Andre became infamous on the streets of Haverhill, Dubus senior taught creative writing at a liberal arts college on the more prosperous side of the river. The perverse complexity of their relationship is illustrated when Andre calls his father to let him know that his sister, Suzanne, had been raped. He reports his shame at a “dark joy spreading through my chest at having just done that to him … the one who should never have left us in the first place.”
It is literature that ultimately brings them together. Reading good short stories, Andre discovers, was “like water leaking from an ear you hadn’t known was blocked, and then something warm and wet is on your skin and now you can hear.” Soon he is writing his own. Hearing his father praise one of them, Andre finally feels like he’s stepped “into a river whose current was taking me to someplace good”.
Townie is riveting and poignant. The writing is crisp and lively – Dubus seems fixated with the smell of the air (“like fresh-cut grass and sewage from the river … like oak dust and dry rot … like dead leaves and cashmere”). The narrative drags on in places – so many bars, so many brawls – yet the book is difficult to put down because one wants to know how the frightened teenager became the celebrated writer. It is a memoir Andre’s father would have been proud of.
Townie: A Memoir, by Andre Dubus III, Norton, RRP£16.99, 390 pages