Congratulations to Andre Dubus III and his brothers and sisters for surviving the perils of their early years — drugs, rage, depression, violence, hunger, neglect — in those mill towns in Massachusetts along the Merrimack River, where no adult seemed to be paying attention.
“Townie” By Andre Dubus III. W. W. Norton, 2011, New York. 387 pages. $25.95.
Congratulations to Andre Dubus III and his brothers and sisters for surviving the perils of their early years — drugs, rage, depression, violence, hunger, neglect — in those mill towns in Massachusetts along the Merrimack River, where no adult seemed to be paying attention. Sixty to 80 school days missed in a year, scores of tardy marks, scrounging in Dumpsters for food and other discards, daily pummeling by the bullies — this was a hard life.
Congratulations to them, not just for living but also for educating and training themselves — with the resources they found by themselves — to help others in the same dire circumstances.
Congratulations to Andre Dubus III, the second of the four children, for finding the writer within and letting that wise soul guide him the rest of the way home. And congratulations to that found writer for “Townie,” a near perfect memoir and arguably the best of the work by this maturing writer.
Andre Dubus III’s “Townie” tells the story of the exceedingly violent life lived in and around Haverhill, Mass. He and his three siblings were born in a five-year span beginning in 1958. The short story writer Andre Dubus was his father. His mother, still living, was the first of Dubus’ three wives. He left his family when Andre III, the second oldest, was 10, for a student at Bradford College where he taught, though they didn’t marry. The man loved and enjoyed the young women at Bradford College. He indulged himself regularly. Years later, when his son Andre III and daughter Suzanne attended, he was still at it. His third wife, Peggy, was in fact Suzanne’s age.
The father’s romances are significant primarily because they reveal something of his self-indulgence. He drank, he abandoned his family and partied hard with students even when his own children attended Bradford. In subsequent marriages, he took responsibility for other offspring despite the privations of his first family. His second wife came to the marriage with two children. He and his third wife, Peggy, gave birth to two children. All the while, his first family struggled.
The details of their wrenching hardships make for sad but hungry reading, in the way of “Angela’s Ashes.” The mother, while much more responsible, worked in Boston and was never home. She narrowed her field of vision, ignoring, it seems, the daily loud and raucous drug parties and absenteeism that went on in their house while she worked. By the time she got home from work, quiet had been restored.
Her idea of cooking was opening a can of chili because she was exhausted and penniless. The younger brother Jeb was depressed and suicidal, but had a remarkable creative talent that included classical guitar, painting, architecture and building. Suzanne indulged in drugs, sex and was raped, provoking the father, Andre, to arm himself to the hilt. The youngest, Nicole, locked herself in her room.
Andre III, meanwhile, was small in stature, bullied and plagued by his shame and cowardice. He transformed himself, with weightlifting and later, boxing, into a fearsome fighter who could drop an opponent — most usually in a vicious street fight — with one or two punches. His rage flared, unabated, for years. In this period he was an avenging danger.
The neglect was so profound that Andre III, as a teenager, did not know what Fenway Park was and had never heard of Manhattan. Years later, when the mother commented that she wished they could have done more for the children, the surprised Andre remarked: “They had all they needed. What’re you talking about?” It was as if he never saw, even though the subjects of his much-acclaimed short stories were the downtrodden. When it was pointed out to him, he got angry.
The elder Dubus was also disciplined. He ran five miles a day, began working out with weights after his son did, went to church every morning, and wrote afterward. He taught in the afternoons. Years later, when he was severely injured by a car that ran over him on a highway, his discipline helped him reclaim some of his muscle mass and return to the habits that sustained him.
The deeper stories have to do with Andre III’s emergence from his rage. It was a process that he understands and conveys with tremendous feeling and insight, and it may not have been possible without first finding himself as a writer.
Like the rest of the book, the transformation is a straightforward and simple telling. Yet there’s something about the relentlessness and layering of detail upon detail that make the mature Dubus an effective and powerful writer and storyteller. As was the case with his earlier work, he has a way of heaping it on until you find yourself living in there with him whether you like it or not. What’s different this time is the turn toward salvation. Though this story, too, ends with a death, it is a death that’s to be expected and that proves the amazing strengths and talents of this emergent and cohesive family.
Writers, adult children of challenging parents, readers of memoirs — there’s probably something here for all of you. There’s a lot of underlying psychology, too. It’s clear that Andre III understands and sees the ways in which his father failed. Compassion for a father who is cruel or neglectful can help you forgive, but it can also stop you from seeing how badly you’ve been hurt. The Dubus children seem to have found their own ways and then they were able to accept what happened to them.
Rae Francoeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her memoir “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair” is now available online and in bookstores. Check out her blog at www.freefallrae.blogspot.com.
Cape Ann Beacon