Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Andre Dubus III - A Townie?

 As much as I'd read about Dubus's autobiography, Townie, I wasn't sure if I could handle one more "dysfunctional family as means to fame and fortune" book. Jeannette Walls, Mary Carr, Alexandra Fuller, the list goes on and on. Once again, I'm chastising myself for my short sightedness. Townie is definitely deserving of a spot on my top ten list. I should have known better. This is the man, after all,  who wrote the devastating House of Sand and Fog, a novel not easily forgotten.

Fair warning, Townie builds slowly, the members of the Dubus family are difficult to warm to, but the writing is so exquisite, so evocative, that you hold your breath in wonder. How many writers do you know who can create great literature out of a description of a stinking, steamy night, clearing, rinsing and washing dishes in a run down back room of a restaurant where the screen door slams open shut, open, shut, welcoming the flies that light everywhere except in the sticky strips that hang from the ceiling?

You know, I think that the publishers or editors or whomever it is that determines a book's title, might have hit on something other than the derogatory "townie." Because I attended a college that was in a run down city, (Troy, New York), much lovelier now I might add, I vividly recall the snob appeal of referring to locals in bars as "townies." Even then, I hated it, the way we thought we stood apart somehow from those who may or may not have had a way out - or, perhaps, didn't even want one! That's a concept we couldn't remotely grasp.

But Andre the third wasn't really a townie. His dad, the very well regarded short story writer, Andre Dubus Jr., taught at several small, liberal arts colleges, in fact, had a very prestigious career marred by his penchant for sexual liasons with his students (this was the sixties so believe me it was prevalent), a fondness for alcohol, and a habit of serial marriage which made it impossible for him to meet his financial responsibilities to his first wife and the four kids which included Andre. An irony not missed by this reader but forgiven by the much kinder writer, is that his profligate dad, apparently a devout Catholic, never missed a morning mass. The disconnect never ceases to amaze me.

The Dubus kids suffered, as more and more kids do these days, from hunger and a lack of supervision from a mom struggling through one menial job after another, exhausted trying to make ends meet. It's painful to listen to Mr. Dubus read his own story. Even his voice, which at first I thought was just too deadpan for the job, reflects the depression, the hopelessness with which he, his brother, an aspiring musician, and his sisters dealt with every day of their young lives.

As he grew older, Andre's hopelessness grew into a simmering rage, one that he writes about so insightfully that it is painful to read (or listen to as the case may be). He goes through a long phase of obsessive body building, bag punching, even training for the Golden Gloves, fighting with anyone who looks sideways at him in the dim, dank Boston bars where he and his cronies hang out, until he finally wears himself out. The anger dissipates as he begins to put pen to paper, surprising himself most of all with this need to set words on the page. How fortunate for us readers that Andre Dubus III discovered how to channel his energy and sense of social injustice into our favorite format. This is a beautiful, wrenching book.

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