Thursday, March 10, 2011
I have read all Dubus books since, watched his House of Sand and Fog on the big screen, wondered where his craft came from (though of course there were the genes, the blood legacy of his namesake author father), and while I knew the bare outlines of Dubus's personal story, I never guessed at what he reveals in his new memoir, Townie. Dubus was one of four kids left to hardscrabble living after the separation of the mother and dad. Having left the family to pursue a life as a published, teaching author, Dubus the elder appeared once or twice a week for years—took the kids to dinner, interceded on behalf of bullies, taught his teenager son to toss a ball, but stayed, otherwise, where he was, in his zone of writing and teaching and young and hip friends and outside the circle of his family. It was Dubus's mom who was left to the overwhelm of single parenthood, and it did, Dubus's reveals, overwhelm her. Boyfriends came and went, houses were abandoned, much was filth and poverty, alcohol and drugs, and nearly everything was violence.
I'm going to write more about this book in a few days to come. But just now I want to share this passage, early in the book—a passage that is, I think, a high example of classic, gorgeous writing. There's the hard truth here, in other words. There is also tenderness. Story and situation, I tell my students (using Gornick's terms). Here are both, the perfect web.
The house was almost always dirty. Whatever chores Mom would give us, we just did not do. But some days, cooped up in that small hot house, one or two of us would finally leave the TV, grab the broom, and start sweeping the floorboards, the narrow wooden stairs and hallway. We might wash the backed-up dishes in the kitchen, find the mop and scrub the floor. We'd go up to our rooms and make our beds, pick dirty clothes out of the corners, and stuff them into a garbage bag for when we went to the laundromat. Sometimes I'd go out to our tiny enclosed yard and sweep the concrete stoop. In the corner of the fence was a rusty rake and I'd use it on our dirt yard. I made straight even lines parallel to the fence. It was still a dirt yard, but standing on the concrete stoop after, looking down at it, our home seemed somehow more orderly, our lives within it more comprehensible.