After she finished reading Andre Dubus III’s new memoir Townie one of my friends called me and asked, “Is this book as good as I think it is or is it just that I grew up around all of these places he writes about?” I told her that while place is certainly important in the book, the book is exactly as good as she thinks it is. And it is.
And so what of this place where my friend, and Dubus, and I now live? This place is the north shore of Massachusetts, once known for its down-in-the-mouth mill and fishing towns bordering the Merrimack river but which is now gentrified and not only a commuter location for those working Boston but also its own happening place to live and work.
Not so in the days when Dubus and my friend were coming up.
Son of a hard-living writer and a hard-working mother, Dubus suffered the same fate of many of us living our childhood in the 60s and 70s when helicopter parents did not exist, that of benign neglect. Our parents meant us no harm; they had grown up in difficult times themselves–many born into the Great Depression or into war. They learned how to survive and that’s what they taught us, mostly by leaving us alone. And that was really okay, actually. Like Dubus, we either learned how to survive and thrive or we didn’t.
You might assume that this book is going to be about what it’s like to be the child of one of the 20th century’s best writers, but in actuality that Dubus’s father was a writer is only a fraction of the tale. At its core this is a story of this son’s redemption and, ultimately, of his awakening. Indeed, some of the most poignant moments within this narrative are when Dubus realizes what he has become (a brute) and what he might become (a murderer) and then, most importantly, what he wants to be and will choose to be (a creator/a husband/a father).
The pivotal scene occurs when instead of heading out to the gym as he would normally do after a day’s hard labor, Dubus makes him self a cup of tea and sits down at his table and writes. In this moment and in this act, he (perhaps unconsciously) saves himself:
I blinked and looked around my tiny rented kitchen, saw things I’d never seen before: the stove leaning to the left, the handle of the fridge covered with dirty masking tape, the chipped paint of the window casing, a missing square of linoleum on the floor under the radiator.
I stood and closed the notebook. I picked up the pencil and set it on top like some kind of marker, a reminder to me of something important I shouldn’t lose.
He does not use writing as therapy, rather he uses it as an act of survival. Of turning the eye outward, so that vision might reflect back inward. For me, this scene was keenly familiar to my own experience in which I, too, picked up the pen as a means of saving myself, of pushing myself away from darkness into the bright glare of awareness.
In fact, so much of the book feels familiar, not because of how I lived and live now but because what Dubus taps into is something common to the human experience: the choices we make that allow us to survive. The choices we make that bring us one more rung up the ladder from merely surviving up to thriving. As such, this book is not about blame or self-pity; it’s about examining the darkness within you so that you might share your own light.
Thanks for this, Myfanwy. I love Dubus 3. He's one of those writers that constantly amaze me, someone who creates a build toward the moment the reader thinks, oh no, but yes, oh no.
Hadn't heard of Townie, but will go out and get.
I'd love to hear what you think after you've read this book, Gay. It definitely does not disappoint!
I got the free opening pages on my Kindle and read them last night. I'm a fan of his fiction, and that of his father, too. Andre Three's growing up story is new to me, and I look forward to reading it soon.
Jim, I'm a fan of father and son as well and I have to say that this book illuminates the work of both instead of detracts from either. It's special.