Townie: a Memoir, By Andre Dubus III


For its author's sake, it would be comforting to think that Townie is one of those memoirs which have been so heavily tweaked as to bear no relation to the writer's actual life. Unfortunately for the memoirist, we know enough about Andre Dubois II, his father, to confirm crucial elements in the book. Dubois senior was an American short-story writer and professor so poor that at one point he sold his blood on a monthly basis. Yet the first 10 years were good for Andre junior. The boy learned to shoot. His parents had loud parties. At one point Kurt Vonnegut lived next door and used to come in to watch Batman.

Unfortunately, the father's lasting love and concern for his wife and children did not prevent him from leaving them to acquire more wives and children. And girlfriends. For three months a year he wrote in the mornings and lay on the beach in the afternoons. For the rest, everything, including the kids, went to the bad.

Despite the disasters, Townie is no misery memoir. In this vibrantly written book, several passages stand out. When a bully beats up his younger brother and calls his mother a whore, Andre declares to himself, "I will never allow you not to fight back again." He starts an obsessive fitness regime, and prowls around like the Caped Crusader, looking for baddies in bars. He beats the living daylights out of men abusing their girlfriends but has a sneaking suspicion that he is really doing it for his own satisfaction, to revenge himself on the bigger kids who walloped him.

Then comes the event that turns Andre into a writer. He is going out to the gym when he suddenly finds himself picking up a pencil and notebook. Into his mind comes the image of a wood in which a girl is losing her virginity. The next thing he is aware of is the words of this story, including his crossings-out, are down on the blue lines in the notebook. Playboy buys his next story for $2,000 which, 30 years ago, was a lot of cash for an unknown writer.

Andre Dubus III is now a known writer. House of Sand and Fog became a bestseller and film. He became close to Andre Dubus II. He never spelt out how paternal irresponsibility had affected the children. Writing with affection after his father's death, the son can now do that.