Preparing for Andre's return visit to Turnrow next week -- March 10, noon -- we delved into his memoir about growing up on the rough side of Boston and finding salvation through writing. If it sounds typical, then prepare to be as surprised as we were by the strength and freshness of this book. Though looking back, Townie feels completely current and alive, like good fiction. If the author slapped "A Novel" under the title and changed nothing in the text, it wouldn't lose an ounce of strength. That's not to say it seems exaggerated or untruthful in any way, only that Dubus has managed to convey his story with the art and immediacy of good fiction. The vividness of his memory -- the sights, sounds, words, emotions and even, quite often, smells -- comes as no surprise. When he visited us in 2009, we were amazed by his recall for quotes and details of other books, his ability to promote ideas through stories. He has used this gift to flesh out his own life story, making it urgent and compelling even to readers who don't do memoirs.
Andre III will be known to most readers as the best-selling author of House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of Last Days, and to others as the son of Andre Dubus, widely considered to be one of the finest craftsmen of the contemporary American short story. One of the most interesting aspects of Townie is this father-son relationship, which is more complex and unique than you might suspect. Dubus Sr.'s influence on his son's writing and life is at first indirect. He left the family when Andre was still a kid, forcing his mom and three siblings to move frequently from one bad neighborhood to the next, scraping by any way they could. The kids slid into bad behavior, drugs and alcohol and general waywardness, falling in with such a bad crowd that ultimately Andre felt that in order to protect himself and his loved ones, he had to learn the language of the streets -- violence.
As a teenager and young man he became a weight-lifter, then a boxer. For many years, he used his fists to fend off trouble, then to settle to disputes and even to cure minor annoyance. He began acting on the rage we're all prone to feeling -- at the aggressive driver who cuts you off in traffic, the jerks yelling outside your window in the middle of the night, the guy bullying his girlfriend in public -- and settled his grievances with violent immediacy, the way we as a culture often admire and envy. But Andre became troubled by this dark compulsion. It was the only way he could express himself, and he realized that he wasn't righting social wrongs so much as trying to subdue the anger inside himself.
He narrates his journey from blood and trouble to words and stories by taking us through memorable incidents in his life, all told with great clarity and precision, and by revealing the most important relationships with other people -- his father, his brothers, friends, lovers and teachers -- all told with a genuine storyteller's gift for character.
In one scene, which captures the generous and unflappable Andre we know, he is working in a halfway house when he comes upon one of the residents -- Donny, a dealer and addict at the end of his rope -- holding a butcher's knife to his own throat. The kid is having trouble rehabilitating, but Andre manages to talk him down by convincing him that he's not ruined, that he doesn't have to become a different person to get better. After the incident, Andre reflects back:
...since I'd begun to write a few years earlier, the hurt and rage that forever seemed to lie just beneath the surface of my skin was not gone but had been consistently directed to my notebooks. Jabs had become single words, a combination of punches had become sentences, and rounds had become paragraphs. When I was done, whether I had written well or not, something seemed to have left me, those same pent-up forces that would have gone into my fists and feet. But it was more than this; I was finding again and again in my daily writing that I had to become these other people, a practice that also seemed to put me more readily in another's shoes even when I wasn't writing. The way it had with Donny. Before this, a guy like him would have simply been an angry face I'd force myself to confront in the one way I'd learned how, my weight on my right foot, my hands in loose fists at my side. To see him as anything other than bad would have deterred me when I did not want to be deterred. But writing was teaching me to leave me behind. It required me to suffer with someone else, an act that made trying to hurt him impossible.
Like a good fighter, Andre caught us off guard and knocked us out with this book. Like a good novel, it gives us memorable characters, compelling episodes and lucid insights. Read it as fact or read it as fiction, but just do yourself a favor and read it.
And please make time to drop by Turnrow, whether to eat lunch and listen or to just say hello, on Thursday from noon to 1:30. Andre, one of the most charming authors we've ever hosted, wil speak about the book and sign copies upstairs. If you can't be there, reserve your signed copy of Townie here.