Review: Townie, by Andre Dubus III

I started TOWNIE by Andre Dubus III with lots of high hopes; while I wasn’t really a fan of his fiction, I like memoirs and I’ve been especially drawn to stories about rough-and-tumble Massachusetts (The Town and The Fighter, anyone?).  Also, I think his father is a short story-writing genius and was interested to read more about their relationship and learn some background on the family that would give his short stories more context.

Dubus spends most of the memoir focused on his childhood; specifically from when he was around 12 to when he was 22 (the author is now 52).  After a poor but idyllic childhood, Dubus’s father leaves his young mother and three other children for another woman, marking the beginning of his strained relationship with Andre Sr. and the end of his sheltered life.  As his mother moves the family from apartment to apartment around poor mill towns in Massachusetts, Dubus and his brother and sisters are forced to fend for themselves, often being left at home late into the night. During his preteen years, Dubus dabbles in drinking and drugs and describes evenings spent breaking into lumber yards and becoming a petty theif. After witnessing and sometimes being the target of violence administered by stronger and tougher neighborhood boys, Dubus decides to never be one of the weak ones again.

He then spends the next 200 pages or so describing his efforts to become a serious body builder and all of the minor, petty fistfights he gets into, sometimes described in such magnified detail that you wonder if he ran home afterwards and recorded them in a notebook.  Because the book is so heavily focused on this span of these 10 years, many of the stories become very repetitive and I kept wondering how many more fights he could possibly get into.  This part of the book, while the most violent, was the least interesting to me.  Many of the fights started to blur together, not adding much to his narrative except perhaps trying to prove to his readers how tough he was or to emphasize his fatal flaw of violence. Though most of the fights sounded minor, it was obvious that Dubus was proud of every one.  Later in the book Dubus seems to have moments of self-reflection, realizing that many of the fights were self-serving rather than righteous, and that instead of being a hero who protected the weak, he often sought out fights for pure blood lust.

Dubus and his father. photo: The Boston Phoenix
The book becomes infinitely more interesting when he describes his relationship with his father.  As Dubus gets older, he begins to see his father more regularly; although their relationship is more like that of drinking buddies than father and son. Andre Sr. is still a womanizer, and on his second and third marriage.  They often hit the local bars together, his father drunkenly encouraging him to start fights. At some point, Dubus decides to finish college and heads out west to Texas for his last two years of school.  In Austin, he starts to feel guilty about fighting and tries to quell his violent urges. He eventually returns to the east coast where he does carpentry with his brother Jeb, continues to body build and go out to the local dive bars with his father and friends, becoming a townie all over again.  At this point Dubus discovers a need to write and spends mornings writing short stories and constructing novels. As the memoir speeds to its end, Dubus mentions many important life events (including one particularly disturbing tragedy) but for the most part they are glossed over, without much analysis. The end of the book is far more engaging than the beginning but the quick wrap-up leaves the reader rather stunned and wishing for more.

Overall I just couldn’t get into the book. I realize that Dubus probably intended to focus more on his punch-throwing youth, but those parts of the memoir could have benefitted from a little editing because I don’t think the reader wants or needs the intimate details of  every single scuffle.  The most enjoyable parts of the book are where he describes his complicated relationships with his family and step-family.  These sections are filled with honest, raw emotions and really give the book a more three-dimensional feel after the long, testosterone filled passages describing bloody fights.  Reading this book at least fulfilled one of my hopes: I learned a tremendous amount about who Andre Sr. was, at least through his son’s eyes. I can see lots of allusions to his personal life in Andre Sr.’s short stories now and it’s interesting to see how his interpretations of events differ from those of his abandoned son. I would recommend reading this book if you are a fan of either Andre Sr. or Andre Jr.’s fiction and want to read about events that inspired their writing. However, you can probably skim most of the middle 200 pages, as you won't learn much about Dubus from his fights.

4 Responses so far.

  1. Oh Deanna says:

    "you can probably skim most of the middle 200 pages"
    This sums up his fiction books for me, as well.

    Nice to see a new review! Keep 'em coming!

  2. agreed, HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG really tested my rule of finishing every book I start, even if it's boring and painful.

  3. Jon K says:

    This sounds like it would be about right. I don't really know why a memoir of someone that hasn't really done THAT many exciting things would need to be so long.

  4. i think the fight descriptions were necessary to show how fighting plays such a major role in the lifestyle he was living in that time. he painted such a clear picture of how he rationalized about his feelings and his actions regarding the fights that it made the final conclusion that much more meaningful. the conclusion that violence is almost never the best option. albeit he did seem to be proud. which is understandable if you have ever kicked the shit out of someone who really deserved it. from the sound of it this reveiwer has not. pussy

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