Tom Abbott | 1/21/2014
" The large part of a booksellers life is spent unpacking boxes. Mostly what comes through is replenishment stock, and then there are new titles. If you're as picky as I am, the majority of arrivals barely get a second look. One afternoon a couple of weeks ago I was opening a delivery from John Wiley Publishers. I had a coffee nearby, and there were a few customers, mostly scanning the new paperback releases near the front door. My one or two colleagues at the time were near me at the till, checking and replying to emails, talking about the recent Tobias Woolf event that I'd sadly missed as I'd been in London visiting my brother and my sister-in-law, the week that just so happened to erupt in violence across the city. I saw the words, 'Townie' written on the invoice and wrote it off assuming it was another book our manager had ordered in the wake of the rioting in a bid to be 'on top of things'. 'Topical'. But when I saw the book, beneath the large bold capitalised TOWNIE was the equally large bold capitalised ANDRE DUBUS III. And so this wasn't just any old delivery.
I think it's worth mentioning right off the bat that I had never read any Andre Dubus III. I had seen the film version of House of Sand and Fog, which I had loved, but admittedly had never got around to reading the actual book. I had also never got around to reading his short stories, or his most recent novel, The Garden of Last Days. But the reason why it had immediately become clear to me that this wasn't going to be any old delivery, was because I knew Andre Dubus III came from good stock. He is, after all, one of the six children of Andre Dubus, a short story writer who wrote stories of such aching brilliance, I knew that even if Andre Dubus III was going to be a second-rate version of his father, I'd still be in for something good.
Andre Dubus had come to me from a friend a few years ago, when I was working down the road at another bookshop. At the time I was reading Raymond Carver. I'd also read the Frank Bascombe novels of Richard Ford. I'd read the short stories of Tobias Woolf, and his brilliant memoir, This Boy's Life. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates was my favourite novel. I had, I felt, begun to drain contemporary American literature for everything that it had to offer. I expect also that I was about to start reading other things, but then I was lent the collection of short stories, Dancing After Hours by Andre Dubus, and I realised that somehow all along I'd missed out on the greatest voice of contemporary American fiction.
There is something very special about Andre Dubus. His stories reflect emotion. Whereas writers like Raymond Carver spent their time using action and description to convey the inner lives of their characters, Dubus freely went directly into their souls, and laid them our bare for the reader. But they're not emotional stories in the melodramatic sense, they are stories of human beings and the emotions that they feel, that inevitably create their motives and their reactions to those around them. They're stories that deal with the most extreme aspects of personal experience. There are stories of adultery, of murder, of rape. They are stories that throw a character immediately onto the cusp of an event that will change their lives, and Dubus will somehow, tenderly, bring to life all that is bad and all that is good in any one character. His exceptional descriptions of the inner lives of women are perhaps the most honest and true, an ability no male author I have ever come across has been able to do, except perhaps Jaime Hernandez, the mastermind behind the cult comic, Love and Rockets.
So I knew that what I had in my hands was potential gold dust. I knew nothing of Andre Dubus III, and admittedly all I knew about his father was a story I'd once heard about how he'd saved a woman's life but in the process had become crippled from the waist down and lived the last twelve years of his life in a wheelchair. That day I was short of money so I put the book immediately onto the new biographies table, and when I got home contacted WW Norton, the publishers of Townie, and they were kind enough to send me a review copy, which to my wondrous surprise, was the actual published book.
Physically, the book is beautiful. WW Norton have very high publishing standards. The paper is of a high quality, and the binding is tight and strong. The cover design is excellent, with the blurred passing freight train against the backdrop of an old red brick warehouse and above, the sky. If ever one needs yet another defence for books, it is that when books are made this well, there is a genuine joy of feeling them in your hands, and opening and closing them. And that is before you've even read a word of what's inside, and what is inside Townie is more than gold dust, it is perhaps both the most heart-wrenching and life-affirming book one could ever hope to read.
The book opens with Andre (III) frantically looking for a pair of running shoes. His father is waiting outside the house, ready to take him for a run. Andre, Sr. has already left his wife, the mother of Andre, and only pays weekly visits to see his four children, of which Andre is the second oldest. He can't find any. Eventually he manages to get a hold of his oldest sister's gym shoes, soft soled and not made for running. What follows is not only a display of human endurance, but also an agonising and tender display of a young teenage boy attempting to be held in high regard by a father he feels almost lost to. They run for miles cross-country, blisters forming on his soles and ankles. His father runs ahead, Andre continuing to follow in a rapidly gaining pain. 'I closed my eyes and kept running' he says at one point. He wanted to keep up with his father, he wanted to show his father what he could do. By the end of this part of the first chapter, Andre Dubus III has managed to convey the complicated relationship he had with his father in just a few pages by using the great analogy of this run, which both defeated and drove him. 'I couldn't remember ever feeling so good. About life. About me. About what else might lie ahead if you were just willing to take some pain, some punishment.' He leant on his father as they returned to the car, his feet bloody and bruised.
The Dubuses lived along the Merrimack River in Massachusetts, in the rough mill town of Haverley. After their father left, their mother did all she could to bring the money in, even if it was only enough to feed them for a couple of meals a day which by the end of she'd be so tired she would sleep on the floor in the front room in her work clothes. When the father had been there there had been an endless source of life in the house. Parties that the young Andre would witness both from a hole in the floor above the kitchen, and also occasionally be involved directly with. Writers and poets would cram the house with cigarette smoke, jugs of wine, Dave Brubeck and Rock and Roll on the record player. These were exciting times for the Dubus children, hearing discussions about communism, about writers like Chekhov, Hemingway. But they wouldn't last. Dubus Sr. left his first wife, mother to his four children, and went off with a young University student of his, a pattern of which would remain for many years to come.
Andre was a fairly scrawny teenager, and growing up in one of the roughest parts of America meant constantly being picked on, beaten up, teased. His whole childhood and early teenage years were a constant cycle of being on the beat upon side of violence, and having to witness the same things to his family members. The way Andre Dubus III describes all this is excellent. He merely states the facts, his descriptions are plain and with the perfect balance of emotional distance and objective understanding. He loses his virginity, he smoke dope. He makes friends, builds a treehouse with his brother and another friend to escape his house that has become a hangout for people he barely knows and wants to be away from. All this while his father is far away, living another life. He hears the occasional whisper that his father is a writer but Andre has no interest in books, cannot relate to his father. In one particularly revealing chapter there is this following description:
'One wednesday in late spring, Pop set up a hibachi grill outside on the half-wall alongside his apartment building. The air was cool and I could smell the lighter fluid he'd just lit up, the mud in the street drains. There was about an hour of daylight left and my father was throwing a ball to me on the sidewalk.
It was a baseball that belonged to one of his roommates. For a while Pop looked in his buddy's bedroom for a couple of gloves too, and I was relieved he didn't find them. I was fourteen but wouldn't know what to do with a baseball glove. What hand do you put it on? How do you catch a ball in it?
So we stood forty feet away from each other on the sidewalk and threw bare-handed. Soft arching tosses that were fun to catch. Fun. At first, as the white ball sailed at me, I tensed up and jumped at it with both hands. But then, as I kept catching it, I began to look forward to catching it again, to see it spin in the air as it came, its dark stitching rotating. I had no idea how to throw it back. I have a vague memory of my father telling me to lift my leg, to throw over my shoulder, though he may not have. But I knew we were talking about something as we threw the ball back and forth, an occasional car passing in the street beside us, the charcoal glowing hotter for our burgers, and there was so much surprise in his face that I clearly had no experience with a baseball whatsoever, that I did not know one thing about it. I could see he didn't want to draw too much attention to this. In my father's eyes above his trimmed beard, I saw pity for me, and maybe I began to feel sorry for myself too, but what I remember most is being surprised that he was surprised. What did he think kids did in my neighbourhood? What did he think we did? But how could I tell him anything without incriminating us all, especially my mother, whom he would blame? And when we sat down to eat at his tiny table in his tiny kitchen we were both quiet and ate too quickly, so much to say there was nothing to say.'
It sums up their entire relationship. The boy who didn't have a father to see the things he was getting up to. The father who attempted to bond by sharing something he enjoyed with his son he probably couldn't quite recognise. Sports weren't Andre's thing at all, but his father didn't know that, and Andre didn't have what it took to tell him that. Didn't have what it took to just tell his father that he got beaten up all the time, that he did drugs, that he stole things and hung out with bad people. This would be a pattern that would repeat itself over and over for years to come.
The central motif of this memoir is the violence, and how Andre, after witnessing his brother get beaten up particularly horrendously, decides once and for all that he will no longer stand by and watch. Will no longer be the coward cowering in the corner whilst those he loved were picked on. He decides to build himself up. He sets up a weights bench in his basement, he dramatically changes his diet and starts to hang out with athletes. And eventually he starts to get into fights, he starts to defend his family, defend his friends, defend women. His descriptions of these fights are particularly excellent. You see the man on the other side of his fists, you feel and empathise with the reasons for him beating that man on the other side of his fists, and you also long for it to be over too. It is bloody and it is incredibly vivid, and with each fight that comes along, Andre slowly begins to realise the utter uselessness of it all. But this is after ten years of beating people until they were close to death, their faces a bloody pulp. Run-ins with the law happen more and more frequently. But what is most interesting about this time is how his father begins to play a particular interest, seeing something in his son that brings an adrenaline rush to him, to the point where he wants to see his son fight and also, to fight alongside his son. Their relationship, in Andre's own words, is not so much a father and son relationship, but more a buddy relationship. They can drink beer together, then they can fight. His father shows off about him one day in a particularly funny and touching moment when Andre is now at university and 'Pop' drops by with his third wife and her parents in a posh car:
'"Wow", Pop said. He hugged me, said he wanted to hear more later, then he opened the rear door of his father-in-law's expensive sedan and said, "My boy just beat the shit out of three punks downtown.'
The 'three punks downtown' his father is talking about are the central figures from probably the best described moment of violence I've ever read. Pages and pages describe this particular act, which resolves itself in a bloody ambush in a diner downtown, where witnesses cry and shield their eyes.
But, by this point, Andre is beginning to tire of it. He is even tiring of the obsessive weight training, and he is at University getting into non-fiction books about Communism, Socialism, the spirit of the times. And it is one day before he goes to the gym when he decides instead to sit down and write. And it's through writing that takes him out of the violence, gives him another avenue in which to direct his anger and his emotions. His first publisher is Playboy and he receives $2000 in return for his short story. And so plays out the last few years of his father's life, a father and son writer who learn to communicate more and more, but even in their last scene together, he can't ever quite bring himself to ask him, "Where were you?". He can never bring himself to tell his father just how hurt he was in those younger years when his father wasn't around. What has developed instead, by the end, is a very close friendship, and a love that runs incredibly deep, albeit, with its secrets. His father dies shortly after, and Andre and his brother Jeb build the coffin for which he will be laid in.
One of the most touching moments of this memoir, towards the end, is his first description of his wife. It sums up love in just a few words, and it sums up, for me, just how far Andre comes into shedding his earlier life of violence and anger, his constant moving around, and entering into his adult years as a writer and as a husband.
'I'd lived in many houses, but if I'd had a home, I still wasn't able to locate it; with her I felt I'd found it, this embrace that had nothing to do with walls and windows, a roof or locked door.'
Townie, like the work of his father, is an exploration into relationships and people that borders on genius. I can't recommend this book highly enough. As I finished the last page yesterday, I had to go outside and take a long walk. It got me thinking about my own father, and the things I've never said to him. Perhaps someday I will, I know now just how important it is. I'll take him out for a beer, and not only tell him the things that have hurt, but also tell him the infinite amount of things that I have loved about him over the years too. "