It’s late afternoon on the beach in North Florida. It’s October, the end of a season, and the world is in motion. Monarchs cloud through the sunlight in orange swarms; blooms of jellyfish float along the shoreline; and schools of grouper leap in flustered succession, tails suspended above the ocean, bodies flapping. The air is just cold enough to make us duck our shoulders under water and lift our faces toward the sun, not shivering but not warm.
Townieis 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?”
Once upon a time, I believed that writing was the same thing as being a writer. This was before I understood that scribbling a messy sentence in a notebook was not actual writing, a time when I bought gamely into the self-sparked romance of becoming a writer: a life of moonlit walks beside rivers, bare apartments dancing with light, foreign languages drifting through a window full of geraniums. Being a writer meant being somewhere else, anywhere that promised architecture and meaningful encounters with sophisticated natives and a chilly, ascetic version of me pinned like an anchorite to my pages. I knew I could never be a writer in the place where I was born, small, cold Cooperstown with its mysterious lake. Laughable idea, that!