Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Townie by Andre Dubus III

Dubus' memoir of growing up poor and angry in Massachusetts is a puzzle.  At page 65, I was ready to put it down but I pressed on.  Now having finished Townie, I'm not certain why I did so.  I found it repetitive to the point of pain and the author only somewhat redeemed.  

Dubus III, the son of author Andre Dubus, grew up in depressed former mill towns outside Boston in the 70's.  His parents divorced and he and his sibs mostly fended for themselves while his mother worked, barely making ends meet.  Dubus Pere, was only a few miles away, teaching at a small college, writing, running, and alternately chasing co-eds and marrying them.  He had a rather vaunted presence in the life of his family but was mostly absent, emotionally and financially.  Only later in life do they become better acquainted though as Dubus III recalls, more like drinking buddies than father and son.

For the first third of the book, Dubus spends his time alternating between getting his ass kicked by legions of neighborhood toughs and hating himself for being a coward.  After his sister is raped at knifepoint, he vows never to be a weakling again.  He starts weight training and boxing and attends college and then spends the next third of the book getting into fights with legions of neighborhood toughs but it does little to assuage his rage that has grown out of poverty, daddy issues and a naivete bordering on idiocy (at one point in his early 20s, he describes never having heard of nearby Harvard.  What?)

Finally, he finds--TA DA!--writing! This leads him to growing up some (not enough for me, at least as he portrays himself) and finding ways to put his rage where it belongs.  There are some touching moments with his father but mostly, his family, friends and fellow bar fighters come across as two-dimensional.  As much as I read about his kid brother, Jeb, I never felt like he was a real person and the same can be said of his mother, his best friend, and even his wife.  

There is also a sense of repetition that was maddening.  How many times do we need to hear the nearby rivers smell bad, the local bars are full of smokers exhalations, and of Clay Whelan, the neighbor kid who beat his ass early in the book?  Per Dubus, all too many.  

Finally, here is a recent interview with Dubus and the great Richard Russo about memoir writing (or 'memwah' according to Dubus) from the Daily Beast:



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He is an amazing artist! Book was so brutal and so well written. It held my interest from the first to the last word.

Marlene Detierro said...

The man is a master of words. This book is almost brutal in some places, and the brutality isn't in the violence, but in the knowledge that childhood can be so cruel. Anyone with a past, especially a tumultuous one, will find a piece of their own story in this book. Just beautiful.

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