You Must Read Dubus III’s ‘Townie’

Andre Dubus III (photo courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company)

You have to buy Townie, by Andre Dubus III.

I don’t usually tell people what books to buy—although you’ve noticed that I quite often go around telling them what they have to read—but in this case I’m making an exception.

You have to buy this book because once you read it, you’re going to want people you know to read it, and the easiest, most efficient way to make that happen is to lend them your own copy—at least briefly.

Because once they start reading it, they’ll realize they need their own copy, give you yours back, and go buy one of their own.

Who should read this? Angry, hungry sons. Professors who have kids. Angry professors who have kids. Any man who has a father he fiercely loves and fiercely hates. Any man who was once a boy who needed to prove himself. Any woman involved with such a man. Any woman who was once been married to a man who leaves her for a younger woman, as well as the second and third wives of writers.

Would-be writers should read this book. Creative writers. Noncreative writers.

Anybody who grew up in a blue-collar family, anybody who grew up in a lousy neighborhood, anybody who thought he had to become the head of the family when he was still a kid, anybody who watched his mother grieve his father’s infidelity, anybody who ever looked for a fight just to get the noise of out his own head.

Or her own head. This is a man’s book, but I wish I could write like this. I always talk about how I want to be Margaret Atwood or Fay Weldon or Hilary Mantel, but now I want to be Andre Dubus III.

I’m not the only one who is evangelical about Dubus III’s new book, either. The New York Times reviewed Townie yesterday.

So what’s the big deal?

Here’s a passage where he’s talking about his father, an eclipsing presence and an eternal one, wrestling with his father’s charismatic attraction, especially for young women: “When Pop was done with his week’s work, that quality that drew people to him seemed to magnify, like life was one all-night party on the first day of some weekend-long fiesta, and I could see it was hard for people not to want to be around him then, especially those like Marie (an attractive student) who had read his work and knew she was standing close to the man who had written such graceful stories. I had just begun to read them myself.”

Here’s a passage describing one of the many fights in the book—not disagreements or arguments, but fights, since fighting is something Dubus trained himself to do: “The boy in me kept replaying how I’d walked up to the three tall men and waited for one of them to get it started, and when the tallest one asked me if I’d come out there for an ass-kicking, I dropped him with a right cross to the face, then pivoted and dropped the one next to him, then I went after the third but he was the drunkest one and he tripped and fell, then the second one was on me and we both knelt in a puddle swinging at each other till I got in more than he did and he fell back and crawled into the shadows of the dumpster. … It happened so fast, the way it always did, so that my friends in the house I lived in didn’t even know about it. That I’d protected them. For a few moments I lay in the glow of the hurt I’d caused, and I felt completely virtuous, as brave and selfless as a good father. But then my cheeks began to burn, this voice in my head: You did that for you.”

Here’s one about being interviewed, always as his father’s son, even once he has become an established a writer: “Why shouldn’t every journalist I’d ever talked to bring up my father and his masterful work? I was his firstborn son with the same name writing fiction, too. What did I expect? In these interviews, I was I treated with barely disguised pity: how hard it must be to follow in the footsteps of a real master, a writer’s writer, to share his name and probably not his gifts, an assumption I shared but honestly did not think much about. Sometimes there was outright irritation that there would be two Andre Dubuses now. One journalist, a woman in her thirties who smoked one cigarette after another and wrote in shorthand, said, “God, don’t you want to do something different from your father? Why don’t you go into another field?”

He says simply that “There had been Alexandre Dumas, pere and Alexandre Dumas, fils; there was Hank Williams and Hank Jr. and Hank III. Now there were two Andre Dubuses, that’s all.”

That’s not all, of course. Dubus III teaches at U. Mass, Lowell, and so is also one of our tribe; his students buzz around him as if he is a hive. Various communities of writers see him as their center. He’s as generous in his teaching life and working life as he is on the page.

Get the pages bound into Townie. Tell me what you think.

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