Andre Dubus III, author of the National Book Award–nominated House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of Last Days, reflects on his violent past and a lifestyle that threatened to destroy him—until he was saved by writing.
After their parents divorced in the 1970s, Andre Dubus III and his three siblings grew up with their exhausted working mother in a depressed Massachusetts mill town saturated with drugs and crime. To protect himself and those he loved from street violence, Andre learned to use his fists so well that he was even scared of himself. He was on a fast track to getting killed—or killing someone else—or to beatings-for-pay as a boxer.
Nearby, his father, an eminent author, taught on a college campus and took the kids out on Sundays. The clash of worlds couldn’t have been more stark—or more difficult for a son to communicate to a father. Only by becoming a writer himself could Andre begin to bridge the abyss and save himself. His memoir is a riveting, visceral, profound meditation on physical violence and the failures and triumphs of love.
Andre Dubus III begins his memoir, Townie, with a Bruce Springsteen lyric about boys trying to look tough. The quotation ultimately sets the tone for the book, which tackles the grit, drugs and street fights that accounted for much of the author's experience growing up in a small New England town in the ‘70s. It also focuses on his ascension out of a potential future that feels almost predetermined, as well as his sometimes tumultuous relationship with his famous father.
Dubus, whose first book, The House of Sand and Fog, was a finalist for The National Book Award, writes prose that is precise, deliberate, and meticulously crafted. This style is matched word for word by his own narration. Having the author perform a piece of work that is as raw and personal as this one makes for an incredible listening experience. The narration is slow and intimate there's a feeling of being drawn into Dubus' turbulent boyhood, of being alongside him as he comes of age in a strange time and in a strange family situation.
The family situation, in which his father leaves him and his siblings with a hardworking if somewhat financially destitute mother, might as well be another character in the story. Dubus is put in the position of basically having a child for a father. The fact that this father also happens to be a famous writer is rightly relegated to the sidelines most of the time. “Pop”, as he is lovingly referred to, turns a blind eye to his ailing family. He drinks and parties with his children. He philanders. He can never stay with one woman for very long. And yet, it's obvious that he has an immense amount of wisdom, commands great respect, and truly loves his family. He just has a weird, somewhat aloof way of showing it.
One of the triumphs of the narrative is that Dubus does rise above his situation, first through an interest in weightlifting and later through his own career as a writer. What starts as an endless loop of bar brawls, rundown cars, cheap beers, and neighborhood characters ends in a kind of Zen-like state that yields forgiveness and personal success.
Townie is also about two very different worlds. Dubus' life is laid out as a kind of double exposure, growing up with one foot on each side of the invisible fence that is class and education. More than anything though, it's about the decision to leave one kind of life for another, to grow disciplined in the face of hardship. Dubus starts as a townie, but ends up as something else. Gina Pensiero
“The best first-person account of an author’s life I have ever read.” (James Lee Burke, New York Times best-selling author)
“In this gritty and gripping memoir, Dubus bares his soul in stunning and page-turning prose.” (Publishers Weekly, Starred Review)
“Powerful, haunting. . . . Beautifully written and bursting with life.” (Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review)
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As gripping as his fiction