Book by ANDRE DUBUS III
Townie is a book about fighting and writing. But it’s mostly about fighting: wanting to fight, learning to fight, training to fight, getting in fights. In the end, it’s about learning not to fight. (I’m not giving much away: a whole lot happens in the middle, and the final scene in which Dubus peels himself away from the urge to fight is lovely and stirring.)
Andre Dubus III spends his boyhood getting beat up a lot. Still scrawny at fourteen, he tells himself:
“I don’t care if you get your face beat in, I don’t care if you get kicked in the head or stabbed or even shot, I will never allow you not to fight back ever again. You hear me?”
And so begin the pull-ups, the bench presses, the push-ups. Dubus details these workouts as though the information were hard-wired into his body—which I suppose, on some level, it is. He works past exhaustion, and then he keeps working. When his sister tells him that the girls are beginning to notice him, he sees her comment as “beside the point.” He is busy preparing to defend himself, his life, and the lives of the people around him.
Meanwhile the lives of the people around him are falling apart. After his writer father leaves, his mother moves Andre and his three siblings from tough neighborhood to tough neighborhood. Even with the money his father sends there’s never enough good food. His older sister begins selling drugs; his brother begins sleeping with his high school teacher; his younger sister, at twelve, installs a padlock on her bedroom door. And Andre, as he puts it, teaches himself to hurt people. His training is in weights and boxing, but his story is not so much about boxing—the ring, the rounds, the rules—as it is about fights in bars and parking lots, fights that get him arrested, fights where people swallow their teeth and get their foreheads fractured. In the course of learning to fight, the promise Dubus made to himself—the promise that he would never not fight back—gets mangled, manifesting instead as the desire to fight pretty much anyone he deems a jerk or a bully.
There are a lot of people this book. There’s Dubus’ immediate family—his mother and father, his three siblings, his close friends, his acquaintances, his enemies, and then the nameless people Andre either fights or who serve as onlookers for fights. You get the sense that Dubus is a townie among townies: an array of working-class characters are the setting in which he becomes the violent, and violently loyal, young man that he does.
The nonessential characters are hard to keep track of, and at a point I stopped trying. Besides, Dubus has an interesting habit of revealing the future of many of these characters: he mentions that they’ll die running from the cops or get stabbed by their wives; that they’ll shit their pants when threatened at gunpoint or die of cancer in jail after murdering children. Some of them, like his boxing coach Bill Connolly, just die (“something to do with his liver or kidneys”) at a vague future point. In one way these disclosures dismiss the characters we won’t meet again, but they’re also a reminder that the life of a townie is physically dangerous. Dubus is almost burned at the stake as a child; he and his siblings run free through the neighborhood looking for drugs; the Murphy brothers threaten to come after him for knocking out two of Steve Lynch’s teeth; his father purchases a gun after his sister is attacked. But even as Dubus candidly describes danger after danger, we learn that the biggest danger—what’s really at stake—is an essential part of himself. Control, maybe. A respect for the humanity of another person. Punching someone in the face, he explains, means moving “through two barriers…one inside you and one around him, as if everyone’s body is surrounded by an invisible membrane you have to puncture to get to them.”
What I find most remarkable about Townie is the way it details the harm done to an aggressor. It’s both plain and exquisite how Dubus takes us down the path he set for himself—one designed to keep fear and harm at bay, but which only invites more fear, more harm. He is a young man who hurts for all sorts of reasons, who begins to hurt others, and who starts feeling uneasy about hurting others long before he can come up with conceptual, intellectual, or language-laden reasons for stopping.
The story is admirable for its frankness. Dubus is no hero, but neither does he obsess about the pain, physical and otherwise, he’s inflicted. There are too many other things happening: school, early admission to college, a stint in Texas, the prospect of graduate school, construction work, restaurant work, girlfriends, friends, family, fights. Some of these details—his closeness with an Iranian family, his run-ins with policemen willing to abuse their power, his construction job—speak to the particulars of his novels. But his novels take place in Florida and California; Townie is very much a Boston story.
It is so much a Boston story, in fact, that Dubus’ years as an undergraduate at Texas are marked by a blank page, the beginning of Part II, and the words, “Two years later, I was back from Texas,” as though Dubus needs to reassure us that he’s already back before he can proceed at all. We do find out what happened in Texas, but it’s framed as memories he has once he’s returned. Later he lives in Colorado for a bit, and California, but that’s only for a brief chapter; then he’s back again, to where he can smell the Merrimack, back to the cast of named and nameless characters who serve as a setting in and of themselves: the energy in the bar, the brainless wife beater who needs a beating, the punks who throw a sucker punch and need to be chased down for it, his co-workers at the gas station, his father’s wives and love affairs.
I started by saying that the book was about fighting and writing. I still think that’s true, but I could also say that it’s about fighting and empathizing. Reading and writing, as well as an evolving relationship with his father, teach Dubus to be compassionate. As he puts it in a particularly powerful scene, “I could trust the humanity of the other to show itself.”
Dubus’ version of humanity is gritty. It presents a lot of flaws, but it also offers room for improvement. Even the minor characters—especially the minor characters, perhaps, because they come and go as so many people in our lives do, in ways both surprising and forgettable—feel like real people.
I had Townie with me during a long, unplanned layover in the Detroit airport. Seats were oversold; everyone was either impatient or tired or both. While waiting to board my flight for Boston, I got talking to a man on standby. We compared notes on how miserable our travels had been.
“At least,” I said, “I have a good book with me.” I showed him the cover.
“I’ve been meaning to get a copy,” he said. “I grew up outside of Boston, you know.” He paused and half-smiled. “Maybe I’m in it.”
I laughed. “What’s your name?”
But he wouldn’t tell me.
Melinda Misener is from Portland, Maine, and Northampton, MA. She currently lives in Ann Arbor, where she in an MFA student at the University of Michigan.