Book: "Townie" by Andre Dubus III

Saturday, May 28, 2011

My first-ever roommate hailed from Dorchester, Massachusetts. At the time, this meant she came from a background of drive-by shootings, gangs and death. And a little later, it meant a 7-minute walk along the highway just after dawn to and from my internship at The Boston Globe, laughing all the while at the unnecessary shuttle the company provided between the JFK-UMass T station and the building. Now, to me Dorchester is where the New Kids on the Block came of age. These three things are so far apart in time but not space that they seem like three completely disparate experiences ... and they probably were very different.

I don't know what life was REALLY like for the New Kids in the late '70s and '80s in Dorchester, Massachusetts. The '80s, nevermind the '70s, were a very different time and Boston in general was a very different city. I know drugs were not uncommon, graffiti art, petty theft ... no word of fighting, death, or any real danger, but it also seems loyalty was far more prevalent in those days.

That is what drew me to the book Townie when I saw it on the New Fiction shelf at the library: a curiosity about the background 4 out of 5 New Kids came from and my having spent years in Massachusetts with people having grown up everywhere from Dorchester and South Boston to the Cape and wealthy towns like Wellesley. Of course the book "Townie" is not about Boston at all, but Haverhill in the Merrimack Valley. Still, it offers the sort of concrete insight I was hungry for.

This memoir is about fighting, family, and fighting for your family. But it is nothing like "The Fighter". Dubus begins the memoir with a focus on his nuclear family, made up of his single mother and 3 siblings, who fall into bad crowds and habits in part because their mother is always working. Dubus places some, or a lot, of the blame on their absent father, the famous author after whom he is named. As the oldest son, Dubus begins to feel the need to protect his family from danger, and he chooses fighting as the way.

Over the course of the memoir, Dubus fights an internal struggle against fighting. He realizes pretty early on that though his obvious impetus for fighting is to defend others, others begin to view him as someone who sucker punches, launches surprise attacks. And perhaps he isn't really fighting for someone else's honor, but as a physical release of his own subconscious anger. Slowly, he begins to learn how to control the impulse to fight, how to stop the now intuitive reaction to a call to fight, and he begins to write.

As he trains himself to do all this, he begins to grow closer to the father he never knew as a father. His father is eager to catch up on lost time, primarily by displaying an interest in his son's fighting career. The elder Dubus sees his son's fighting as a hobby, not as the necessity for survival that the younger Dubus' ability springs from. Dubus wants so desperately to tell his father about the hardships of his childhood, the reason he had to learn to fight in the first place, but never gets the chance. At the close of the touch-too-long memoir, Dubus buries his father and finally puts his past of fighting into the ground with his father.

The memoir is insightful, disturbing, and occasionally heartwarming. At times, Dubus offers incredible grains of wisdom in passing. The memoir is an example of human resilience -- it's hard to imagine that someone could come out of an adolescence like his relatively unscathed. And it seems that Dubus is aware of how lucky he was, of all the neighborhood kids he could've ended up like -- incarcerated, or worse, dead. Townie is not sweet, but it offers a slice of the human condition and a questioning of morality as well as mortality. And ultimately, it gives us another perspective on life, that of a boy born into the world in the late '50s in Massachusetts, and reminds us to look for hope even when we think there is none left.

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