When Andre Dubus III was 11 years old, his parents parted ways. The oldest of four siblings, Dubus watched as his father drove away, while his younger brother ran after the car, throwing handfuls of gravel in its wake, shouting “You bum!” With a hopeless resolve, Dubus realizes that “Mom would need to be comforted now. . . . There was food to think about. How to get it with no car. I tried to keep standing as straight as I could.”

With little money or emotional support from their father (the writer Andre Dubus), young Andre and his siblings grew up poor in a series of Massachusetts mill towns, living in rundown neighborhoods plagued by street-fighting, crime and drugs. A self-professed coward and physically weak, Dubus retreated into apathy and drugs, helplessly witnessing violence and aggression against himself and his family. After years of such attacks, Dubus’ rage surfaced: He decided to fight back. He lifted weights, boxed at the local gym and became a strong, viciously adept and habitual brawler.

In this emotionally resonant and often achingly beautiful narrative, Dubus traces the arc of his hurt, anger, revenge and despair as he fights a battle for the survival of his soul and spirit, which grew weaker as his body gained strength. Eventually entering the rarified Bradford College, where his father was a professor, he was an out-of-place and indifferent student, especially after he overheard a fellow student refer to him as “such a townie.” Dubus writes: “I’d heard the word before. . . . Sheetrock hangers and housepainters and off-duty cops: townies.”

Dubus (House of Sand and Fog) renders his eventual life path—leaving his hometown, returning to college, turning to writing, coming back to his hometown and caring for his injured father—in powerfully nuanced scenes and dialogue. An honestly told story of fights and fighting, filial love, loneliness, bodily misery and soul-hunger, Townie exquisitely explicates one writer’s beginnings and his consuming need for expression—not through the delusive potency of physical violence, but through the redemptive, alchemical power of words.

 

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