I first encountered the writing of Andre Dubus in the early 1980s. I remember being at the Boston Globe Book Fair, which used to be held in the Hynes Convention center. I was walking from booth to booth and wound up at one point at the Godine display. There were a series Dubus paperbacks with cover designs that caught my eye. Each cover had a flat grey background, titles in hand-lettered red calligraphy, and a stark black-and-white photo on the front. Separate Flights had a picture of a white double door, partially ajar, with light pushing out from behind. Adultery and Other Choices had a picture of an unmade bed, just sheets and two pillows. Finding a Girl in America had a picture of the corner of a white mantel with a white urn casting a shadow on the white wall. I picked up each book, read a few passages at random, and was immediately hooked. I bought all three books and read them with amazement and delight. If there’s a better short-story writer in American fiction, I don’t know who it is. (In Canada, there’s Alice Munro, of course.)
Dubus is still one of my anchor points, one of the writers I return to. He used to do readings in the Boston area. I went to them often, and met him and spoke to him once, after a Saturday afternoon reading outdoors at a small suburban library in May of 1985. He was wearing jeans and boots and a vest, and looked as much like a biker as an author, a combination I found reassuring. I told him how much my wife and I enjoyed his writing, and he asked how long we had been married. When I told him 16 years, he called over to one of his friends to tell him, as if this were something that beggared belief. He signed my copy of Voices from the Moon — a 1985 New Year’s gift from my — “Best wishes and hopes for blessings on the children.” Dubus became for me a kind of model and a kind of hero, a man whose artful, intelligent, compassionate writing seemed to justify his statue as a Person of Value.
Some years later, I discovered that there was another Andre Dubus, the son of the man I had meet. I read and very much enjoyed both House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of the Last Days. I wondered how it was that father and son came to share the inclination and the talent to be storytellers. I was curious about what it must have been like to grow up with Andre Dubus as a father.
Now I know. Or at least, I have a report directly from the source. Andre Dubus III has recently come out with a memoir called Townie, and it is a sobering, sometimes shockingly honest story that both complicates and enriches the understanding and respect I have for both writers. It turns out that there is good reason for Dubus to have been surprised that my marriage had lasted so long. He left his first wife (and three children) when young Andre, the oldest, was eleven. (For sake of clarity, I’ll refer to the father as Dubus and his son as Andre from here on in.)
Andre spent his teenage years moving from one low-rent house to another in tough working-class neighborhoods, and because we was small and because he was The New Kid he was often the brunt of the kind of casual brutality and bullying that anyone in that situation was likely to be in for. His feelings of shame, for himself and for his inability to protect himself, and his sisters, and his mother, from what his father had left them to, become the predominant driving force behind the person he decided to make of himself. During his teenage years he began to submit himself to a punishing regimen of weightlifting and boxing lessons. As he grew in strength and skill, he began first of all to stick up for himself, and secondly to go actively looking for opportunities to put his new powers on display, ultimately turning himself into exactly the kind of person who had been making him miserable. (I’m grossly oversimplifying here and overgeneralizing here. His story as he tells it is much more nuanced and much more vivid than any brief summary can capture.)
As readers, we have the advantage of knowing from the start that this story is going to have a happier ending than that of many of the toughs that Andre ran with and fought with, many of whom wind up either in jail or prematurely dead. A large part of what is most interesting about this book has to do with how he makes the transition from being the kind of person whose primary means of self-expression is his fists, to being, like his father before him, a writer of surpassing gifts, and how this metamorphosis is reinforced and enhanced by his father’s re-entry into his life.
Townie is a memoir that reads like a novel. There’s of course a positive side to this, in that the book is a compelling read, not least because Andre is very good with both narrative and character delineation. He knows how to make a scene come alive, and he’s good with language:
IN THE SUMMER, Salisbury Beach was where you went if you had wheels, especially on Friday or Saturday night. It was a sandy strip of barrooms and open arcades, pool halls and dance clubs and carnival rides. There was a roller-coaster built entirely out of wood, bleached four-by-fours that one day would rot and they’d tear it down, but in the late seventies you could hear the rattle of the cars all night long, the cries of riders as they plummeted down one steep slope and got jerked up another. There was the bass thump of DJ music through the thin walls of the Frolics, the boxed roll and ping of steel balls in the pinball machine, the hard-cornered slap of plastic air hockey pucks, talk and yelling, little kids laughing or pleading, the creaking of gears beneath the huge lighted Ferris wheel. There were the revving motorcycle engines, their diesel-fed clacking of steel on steel. There was the electric whine of the Dodge ’Em cars, the buzz of neon lights, and the constant slap and hiss of waves breaking on the dark beach. You could smell motor exhaust and seashells and spun sugar. There was smoking beef and overheated Fry-O-Lator oil and fried dough and butter from a bottle. There was the tang of dried ketchup and mustard on the asphalt, cigarette smoke and bubble gum and suntan lotion and sweat.
But there’s a danger here, for both writer and reader, a danger which is always attendant upon the task of the writing of non-fiction, and that is that there’s always a lot more that actually happened than words will ever be able to re-create, and so there is always a process of selection going on, a kind of re-fashioning of experience in the service of story. As a teacher and a writer, I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the very concept of “Creative Writing.” If Townie had been marketed as a novel, we’d think of it as fiction; but since it’s marketed as memoir, we’re encouraged to think of is as truth.
But I’ve come to believe, and this book reinforces that belief, that just as there can be a great deal of truth in a novel — everything from thinly-disguised autobiography to authentically imagined made-up stuff that conveys a reality that stands up to and at times surpasses the reality we know. (In fact, when I met Dubus at the library, by way of paying him a compliment, I told him was that many of his characters felt more real to me than some of the people I actually know.)
Conversely, there is necessarily a great deal of fictionalizing that goes on in autobiography. The process of fictionalization begins with selection: what I choose to leave out would have colored the story differently, and what I choose to put in is there for a reason: it illustrates something that I want people to understand, but that is filtered through whatever motives I may have for writing my story in the first place. To take just one example, there is a fairly graphic sexual initiation scene early in the book, but only the most oblique mention of Andre’s courtship with the woman who eventually became his wife. There are doubtless many good reasons for the omission, but it’s clear here and elsewhere that there is internal censorship at work, and that the story has been shaped, for better or worse, by a writer whose very gifts as a storyteller may be eliding the truth, consciously or unconsciously, even as he appears to be presenting it to us.
There’s also the fairly obvious point that writing itself is necessarily linear and sequential, one word following another, which is not the way we experience life at all. Any written version of “real” events is a re-construction in another medium. It’s a form of prestidigitation, using words to conjure up images in the mind. But the magic must needs be understood to be, to a greater or lesser degree, an illusion, a mirage, a dream. I don’t mean any of this as a criticism. Townie is a terrific book. I’m glad Andre wrote it, and I’m glad I read it. But it’s a constructed artifact, and inevitably raises as many questions as it answers.
As I said before, perhaps the major turn in the novel, and the one that had the greatest degree of interest for me personally, has to do with the point at which Andre begins to question his motivations for fighting, begins to understand that no matter how intense and satisfying it may feel while you are beating the crap out of somebody, it leaves a residue of of dissatisfaction and shame. After one fight which he gets into, ostensibly to avenge an insult, he goes home to his apartment and lies down on his bed and thinks through the sources of his anger:
But then my cheeks began to burn, this voice in my head: You did that for you. And I saw Cody Perkins back on the streets of the South End, how he walked with his chest out and his head up, how he was always looking for a fight. At eleven and twelve years old, I could only fear and admire him; how could anyone look for a fight? How could anyone want that? But lying there on my mattress in Texas nine years later, my knuckles swelling up, the alley clear and quiet because I had cleared it, I knew why he wanted to find those fights; they were his only chance to get out what was inside him. Like pus from a wound, it was how he expressed what had to be expressed. It gave him the chance to do something for him and him only, and my shame now came from someplace I hadn’t considered before, that maybe inside me there were other ways to get this pus out, other ways to express a wound.
Later, in what for me is truly one of the most magical passages in the book, he describes the first time he begins to consider the possibility of substituting physical self-discipline with another:
But in the kitchen I stopped at the door. I watched myself let go of the knob and turn and put a pan of water on the stove. I opened the flames under it all the way, then watched myself take an empty cup and drop a tea bag into it. I walked back to where I slept for the notebook and a pencil, and why did I set them on the small kitchen table? Why was I sitting there waiting for the water to boil for the tea when I should be running along an icy sidewalk in the night to train? I began to feel too warm in my layered sweats, but I didn’t move. I opened the notebook in front of me. The water began to bubble and I stood and poured it steaming into my cup, the tea bag jerking, then rising, and now I watched as I set the cup near the notebook and took my pencil and held it. What was I doing? And why? Why was I doing this? For a short time or a long time, I stared at the page. I saw how consistently level the blue lines were from left to right, a quarter of an inch high, maybe five-sixteenths. I kept staring at them. Then a curtain lifted and I began to see a factory somewhere where these notebooks were made, men and women running big machines, cutting and printing and binding, and I saw a man like Randy working some press, his outlaw mustache, sweat in the corners of his eyes, then I was in the woods, woods I called Maine, the place Liz was from, and now a young woman who looked very much like her was half drunk on warm beer and was losing her virginity on the hood of a Pontiac. Then I was her, feeling the metal hood under my skin, the jabs into me that hurt, then didn’t but did. The boy she’d given herself to finished quickly, and it was as if I were a mist in the trees watching them sitting now in the front seat. They smoked cigarettes and neither of them spoke. A soft rain began to fall and the boy started the engine and put his car in gear and drove down the rutted road away from what they’d just done together. Away from me. I put down my pencil. In front of me were just handwritten words, quite a few crossed out and replaced with others. I raised the cup of tea to my lips and blew on it, but it had cooled to the temperature of the room. Hadn’t it just been steaming? How long had I been sitting here? 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.
Eventually, he begins to realize that the discipline of writing brings with it other benefits he had not anticipated:
It was a Saturday afternoon, warm enough I didn’t need a jacket. I grabbed my workout clothes and left my apartment. The inside of my car smelled like sawdust and the leather of my carpentry apron on the backseat. For a few miles the day was too bright and real and I blinked at it from the dream I’d cast myself in with the two old ladies and the young man and all those blackberries. Then I was on the back roads heading west. Instead of playing the radio, hunting for that one good song, I drove along in silence. On both sides of the road were woods, but today, for the first time, I saw them as individual trees, each one different from the one beside it or in front of it or behind it. One was as bent with age and weight as an old man, another as thin and straight as a young girl, one pine, the other maple or elm or oak, and the sun seemed to shine on each sprouting leaf, on each needle, on the black telephone lines sweeping from pole to pole, on the veined creosote at their bases, on each pebble at the side of the road, each broken piece of asphalt, each diamond of broken glass from a smashed bottle or cracked mirror or discarded compact from a woman I would never meet. And I felt more like me than I ever had, as if the years I’d lived so far had formed layers of skin and muscle over myself that others saw as me when the real one had been underneath all along, and writing—even writing badly—had peeled away those layers, and I knew then that if I wanted to stay this awake and alive, if I wanted to stay me, I would have to keep writing.
There are a number of passages toward the end of the book where Andre writes eloquently about how writing begins to affect the way he thinks, acts, and lives. Here is one where he makes the terms of the metamorphosis explicit:
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.
And once he has reconciled with his father, gotten married himself, and had children of his own, the metamorphosis is complete:
I was a father now. All day and all night of every week of every month of every year since becoming one, I’d felt surrounded by love, responsible to it, careful not to hurt it, and so grateful to get it. To punch another man in the face was to punch another father, was to punch some father’s son. As much as I admired the heart and the skills of the two fighters we were watching, for me it was like a recovering alcoholic sitting at a bar with a glass of soda water while his friends drink tequila shots. I wanted to tell Pop this. My crippled father, the new one, the one who looked at me and listened more fully now, he would hear all this if I told him. And maybe he wouldn’t feel blamed. Maybe the younger father in him, the one who had had so much work to get done and so little time in which to do it, maybe he would listen too.
June 19, 2011. Happy Fathers’ Day, y’all.