Monday, February 27, 2012

Townie - Andre Dubus III

"It was like punching [someone] in the face, how you have to move through two barriers to do something like that, one inside you and one around him, as if everyone’s body is surrounded by an invisible membrane you have to puncture to get to them… with violence you had to break that membrane yourself, and once you learned how to do that, it was easier to keep doing it."

Townie (W.W. Norton and Company, 2011, now in paperback) is novelist Andre Dubus III's very frank and extremely moving memoir of his violent adolescence and young adulthood, his complicated relationship with his father (the author Andre Dubus), and his own journey to becoming a writer. It is also an incredible view of the world through the eyes of an angry, frightened young man.

After his parents divorced, young Andre Dubus III moved with his mother and three siblings to a rough, economically depressed mill town outside of Boston. His mother struggled to make ends meet, just barely able to keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table. With her long work hours, the teenagers were often left to navigate adolescence on their own, skipping school, drinking, doing drugs. They were often bullied, or worse. Andre turned to weightlifting and training to defend himself and his family.

Meanwhile, his father lived an academic life, teaching at a private college in a more affluent town nearby and steadily gaining acclaim as a writer. In his later teens, the younger Dubus enrolled in classes at the college, but didn’t quite fit in, feeling very much the “townie.” He not only continued to fight, he often went looking for one. The father’s admiration for the younger Dubus’s skill as a fighter led to the beginning of a closer relationship between the two men.

The younger Dubus eventually turned to writing, which became his salvation and path to a more peaceful life. For Dubus fans, Townie is more than a gripping memoir, it is also a glimpse at the influences that shaped the author as a writer. I read Townie right on the heels of House of Sand and Fog, and loved considering both the connections between fact and fiction (among them, his characters and their choices, and how he wrote with such familiarity and detail about an Iranian family’s culture and customs) and Dubus's own development as a writer.

Townie is not always an easy book to read - there are moments that will break your heart, and others that will punch you in the gut. I found it hard to read about children who didn’t have enough to eat and who had to fend for themselves in far too many ways at far too young an age. It was hard to read about the bullying and violence, both against the author and his siblings, and perpetrated by him. It was also hard not to judge, when presented with the contrast between the relatively comfortable life of the father and the hardship faced by his family, though in the end Dubus himself does not judge, and urges his readers not to, either.

There are also moments in this story that are profoundly beautiful, both in their significance as personal transformation and as pure literature: Dubus choosing non-violence in a watershed moment confronting a younger man on a train, helping his father after a disabling car accident, and, when the senior Dubus passes away, working side-by-side with his brother to hand-craft his father’s coffin and dig his grave.

Townie is a very honest, very powerful, and ultimately touching memoir. I also found it to be a poignant reminder that we can and truly ought to do better for young people - that behind any angry, violent teenager is a human being who is hurting. This is a story that will not only stay with you, it might even shift your understanding of the world.

I was honored to have the opportunity to ask the author some questions about Townie, and his answers were every bit as forthright and fascinating as his memoir. You can read my q&a with Andre Dubus III today here on the blog.

Andre Dubus III is a National Book Award finalist and author of the novels House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of Last Days. His writing has received many honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Magazine Award, and a Pushcart Prize. 

Many thanks to the publisher for a complimentary review copy of Townie.

Happy reading!


  1. I can't remember, right now, the name of the Dubus book I read a couple of years ago but it sounds very much like Dubus' fiction mirrors his life in that there were moments of touching beauty and an equal number of punches to the gut. He is a hard guy to read but now I understand why.

    1. Yes! curious which book you read! After reading this and House of Sand & Fog, Garden of Last Days is def. on my TBR.

  2. This sounds fascinating. I'll look it up. Thanks for the review.

    1. Thanks so much for checking it out- hope you enjoy it!


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