Janessa's Reviews > Townie

Townie by Andre Dubus III
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's review
Apr 08, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: memoir
Read in April, 2011

I typically review children's picture books and middle grade/young adult fiction on Thursdays, but I have to make an exception today. I recently finished reading TOWNIE, an amazing memoir by the writer Andre Dubus III, and it is one of those rare and precious books that touch the soul and leave a lasting impression. I'm still sorting through my reading experience, but these are the words that come to mind: courageous, honest, transformative, redemptive.

In the book Dubus tells of his childhood in the blue-collar mill towns of Massachusetts, growing up in a single-parent home with three siblings. His family barely scraped by on his mom's meager wages as a social worker and the child support they received from his dad, a writer and professor at a nearby college. The neighborhoods they lived in were full of violence - drugs, alcoholism, bullying, theft and abuse. Everyday was dangerous, and Dubus did his best to hide from it until his younger brother was beaten bloody in front of their house and all Dubus could do was stand and watch.

Dubus writes of the pivotal moment following this scene, where he faces himself in his bathroom mirror.

I stood in front of the sink and the mirror. I was almost suprised to see someone standing there. This kid with a smooth face and not one whisker, this kid with long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, this kid with narrow shoulders and soft arm and chest muscles and no balls. This kid had no balls. I looked into his eyes: I don't care if you get your face beat in, I don't care if you get kicked in the head or stabbed or even shot, I will never allow you not to fight back ever again. You hear me?

From this moment, Dubus molds himself into a fighter. He becomes a vigilante, back to the wall, eyes on the door, always watching, waiting for a chance to beat out his fear into the faces of the bad people - the men who injure and abuse. He starts lifting. He learns boxing. And he sends a lot of people to the hospital, always in the defense of someone who is being victimized. Violence becomes part of his nature - how he views the world and himself in it. It also gets the attention of his disinterested father for the first time in Dubus' life. Now that he's strong, filled-out, disciplined, and scrapping in restaurants and bars, his marine-trained father is impressed and starts spending more time with Dubus.

Gradually Dubus begins to realize that he has lost control. He doesn't like the person in the mirror anymore - the person he has willed himself to become. He has to change. But fighting has become a reflex. Violence has become his lens for viewing the world. It isn't until one night, after a hard day of hanging sheetrock, when he finds himself boiling tea and sitting down at his small kitchen table with a notebook and pencil, that he finds the way out. Writing. It comes to him like a gift, and gives him the ability to see the world and himself in a new way. It gives him the power to transform himself.

Dubus is committed to honesty in his writing. He learns to see what is false and leaves it behind. The more honest he is with his writing the more honest he can be with himself. And the more empathetic he can be with others. The role of writing in Dubus' life fascinates and inspires me. He creates a new life around his writing, which requires sacrifice and dedication. The motivation for this change seems to come from a desire to see things in the most honest and original way possible, including himself. I loved TOWNIE for this. It creates a forward-moving momentum in Dubus' life, culminating in a scene on a train that I can only describe as holy.

Holy is a word that Dubus' father uses in the book. The elder Dubus is a great writer, and he is as dedicated to writing as his son is. He admits to giving the best part of himself to writing, which is the same part of himself that he saves for God and mass. Thus, writing is something of a holy experience for him. It elevates him. It is a daily ritual. But the relationship he has with writing prevents him from being a present part of Dubus' childhood. Dubus struggles to accept this absence, working it out with pencil and paper in his early writing. From there the relationship grows and develops, becoming a major force in TOWNIE and a source of redemption and resolution.
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message 1: by Josef (new)

Josef Miyasato Wonderful review. I'll be reading this in the future thanks to you.

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