Townie/Andre Dubus III: Full Reflections

Saturday, March 19, 2011

I finished reading Townie today, a book I first wrote of a week or so ago.  It is a long book, not one to be rushed through.  It is a hard book, a tale about the fate of children growing up in the wake of an occasional dad—a talented man, a loving man, but a man who puts his impulses and his writing first.  Dubus II, the author's father has, we come to realize (thanks to the son's tender and non-accusatory telling), no real idea why his children are hungry or chased or being hurt in the world, or why his namesake son doesn't know how to throw a ball, or why that same son turns to beefing up and boxing and lashing out at world that can do tremendous harm.

Dubus II doesn't really understand and Dubus III doesn't really want to blame him, but the life was what the life was—a sister's rape, a brother's suicide attempts, a house open to itinerants and bullies, and a single mom doing everything she can to try to hold it altogether, though who can hold it altogether, really, when the four kids are your responsibility and you're working all day just to pay the rent?  Leaving brings all kinds of heartache in its wake, and Townie does an extraordinary job of taking us inside the fractures and consequences.  It's not that Dubus II doesn't see his kids; a couple of nights a week he does.  It's not that he doesn't pay child support; he gives what he can.  It's just (but not simply) that none of that, in this family, is enough.  Townie hurts to read, but it's essential.

Dubus III, as I have mentioned, overcomes the embattled nature of his adolescent circumstance by clinging to the faith that the only defense he has (for himself, for his family) is muscle and fist.  Time and again we see this kid (and, later, this man) throwing a sucker punch, knocking an enemy to the ground, riding in the back of a police car, sitting briefly behind bars, and hearing, later, that one of his victims was sent to the hospital, that one of the victim's friends is out to get him.  Later in life, Dubus II, a former marine, asks his son how he can take so many assailants on at once, and the author, by way of explaining, says this:
I wanted to tell him about the membrane around someone's eyes and nose and mouth, how you have to smash through it which means you have to smash through your own first, your own compassion for another, your own humanity.
This idea—this history of smashing through  his own humanity—haunts Dubus III throughout these pages.  We are haunted with him.  Seamlessly and urgently written, no boast in it, no politics, no accusations, either, Townie is a reckoning.  It is a brave insider's look at how one moves past fists toward words, past heartbreak toward compassion, past broken family to a wholeness of one's own.


Lilian Nattel said...

What a beautiful summary of this book. I can feel the urgency in it, the difficulty, and the compassion. It makes me want to read it. I'm putting it on my list.

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