Townie, by André Dubus III
Two things you should know about me: 1) I love André Dubus (the II, not the III – more on that later). He is the author of my favourite short story of all time, which is also possibly my favourite thing that has ever been written down in the history of human thought. 2) I hate biographies. Especially auto-biographies. I have a hard time believing that anyone has the insight to write their own biographies, and there’s nothing that depresses me more than author’s personal attempts to justify every aspect of their lives to an audience.
I fought between these dual impulses for a while before purchasing this book. Aside from my general dislike of autobiographies, I found it particularly offensive that this particular autobiography would, by necessity, examine and dissect the life of one of my favourite authors, one who is also dead, and therefore can’t defend himself. I have no illusions about the perfection of André Dubus, the Father – my favourite thing about his writing is his intimate knowledge of human failure, and I would be disappointed if he were the perfect father. But there was something about the fact that his son might write bad things about him that particularly bothered me. The complaints of the children of authors are pretty well-documented: having their lives used for fictional purposes, coming second to the all-consuming impulse to observe and record, etc etc. I recognize as the child of an artist whose art was placed way down on a list that prioritized her children and husband I have no business saying this, but: Kid? It was worth it. If you can’t tell that you were loved from his stories, than you have no business being loved at all.
In the end, what convinced me was the setting. The book’s title is Townie, titled thus because of the series of abandoned mill towns in which the Dubus family was brought up. I live in Massachusetts, and because I wasn’t born here and am not jaded by the ongoing economic stagnation of small towns in New England, I find them sad and beautiful and endlessly fascinating. I grew up all over the world, which means that the people I find most interesting are people who grew up in one specific place. I find people whose lives take place in one piece of regional square footage unbearably interesting, a fact which surely makes me super annoying to actual townies.
All the same, it was with great apprehension that I picked up this book. And at first, I was afraid my original impulse had been correct. André Dubus was married three times, and the author was a progeny of his first. After his parent’s divorce, he and his three siblings were raised by his mother, a social worker constantly trying to make ends meet, and not always entirely succeeding.
It is in this arena that Dubus accomplishes the most as writer. Kid’s a townie that knows how to write, and as such, he paints a searing and mesmerizing portrait of what it’s like to grow up fatherless in the kind of town where people don’t grow up thinking they have options – the kind of town, where, despite it’s proximity, no one ever actually moves to the city. More specifically, he knows how to write about violence, a subject that very few writers are proficient in. I don’t know how else to describe the numerous fight scenes in Townie except to say that they are intense. At one point, he describes the space between the impulse and action of a fight as tearing through two membranes: the one between your fist and what’s in front of it, and the one protecting the other guy’s face.
André doesn’t write particularly like his father, but his obsession with violence is clearly genetic. Interestingly, both of their preoccupations with violence come from almost exactly the same place – an intense fear of not being able to protect one’s own family. This fear is played out when André’s sister Susannah is raped, a scene which is both hauntingly familiar and frighteningly new – I’ve thought about rape primarily from the victim’s point of view (and rightly so), but I don’t believe I had ever fully appreciated the helplessness of family in this situation, the paralyzing horror of not being able to prevent it.
Other than violence (and the path to redemption that writing offers from a life of it), the other theme of Townie is obviously the relationship between the author and his father. André hints rather than outright says that his obsession with protecting his family by way of violence is a casualty of his father’s leaving, but the implication is there all the same. The young Dubuses relationship with their father is rather ephemeral when they are children, and doesn’t fully develop until they are adults. Dubus’ relationship with his children are awkward and bashful – it’s almost as if their innocence frightens him, and he does not seem to fully relate to them until they are fully developed, old enough to have their own faults and foibles, and to then hopefully understand his own. Dubus the Father’s accident (he was hit by a car while attempting to help a young brother and sister in Boston whose car had broken down) also serves to bring them closer together, as his dependence on his wheelchair makes him more amenable to recognizing his need for his family (and, though it is not dealt with as thoroughly here, God – Dubus was a devout Catholic, even more devout after his accident). The redemption of both André’s life and his relationship with his father is genuinely cathartic to read, and it makes the foregone conclusion of his death even more affecting. My favourite part of the book came when both André and his brother Jed, both of them no strangers to manual labour, tease their father for a section of one of his short stories in which a character builds a coffin and buries someone in the space of in afternoon. After his death (he had a heart attack while in the shower), André and Jed decide, almost without words, to build his father’s coffin. It takes them fifteen hours. “Three hours my ass,” they say, joking, as they fashion the simple pine box where their father will be laid to rest. I found this, combined with the fact that they could not dig the ground to bury him for several months because of the cold, the most moving parts of the book.
Though at parts difficult to read, this book was everything I could have hoped for. Instead of damaging my vision of André Dubus II, it reinforced him in my mind as a beautifully flawed but incredibly generous and big-hearted man. And it painted a compelling picture of that peculiarly New-England townieness, which I can’t ever help but find affecting. Though it did employ my least favourite autobiographical ploy, that of the way too self-justifying redemption, and the overly convenient wrapping together of storylines that will probably never be wrapped up that neatly in reality, I was willing to forgive it because what I remember from the book isn’t the slightly too convenient ending, but the poignancy of getting there.