Well into his memoir of life in a rough-and-tumble mill town in Massachusetts, Andre Dubus III offers up this gem of writing wisdom discovered through observing a master, "[he wrote] in a simple, naked style that drew the reader's eye not to him, but to them [the characters in the book]." Although there are parts of this narrative that don't work at all, I will take this line away with me for a very long time. It is tempting as a writer to be an ultimate egotist, to draw unceasing attention to myself. I once knew a lady who proclaimed that "everyone loved to hear her read" at church. And I sometimes think of this as I write. Am I writing as an egotist who believes that "everyone loves to hear me talk"? Or do I have a wider, more important mission than myself? Do I have a mission that is for others and for God?
For Dubus, the author of this week's featured book, Townie: A Memoir (W. W. Norton & Company), writing was almost a spiritual salvation experience, a deliverance from his wild efforts to prove himself through muscle and brawn in the hardscrabble life of a hard-living townie in Haverhill and Newburyport, Massachusetts. It is ultimately a book about a young man's efforts to find himself and become a man in the absence of strong fatherly guidance. It is a book that brings to mind the oft-repeated line from The Incredible Hulk, "I don't know if we can control it, but we can aim it."
Dubus's father was a celebrated author and he grew up in that shadow. His father also left his mother for another woman when he was a child, leaving Dubus without much male guidance, in poverty, with a family facing great obstacles such as hunger and the eventual rape of his sister. Dubus suffered greatly at the hands of town bullies and developed a goal in life of never being beaten up or dominated by another. He idolized body builders and paid homage to their photos in magazines. He worked long and hard to build himself up as an indomitable neighborhood warrior. The first 3/4 of this book detail fight after fight after fight in which Dubus was engaged. This is not a book for those offended by strong language; the language is some of the most fierce I have ever read. There are also times when I felt Dubus was abandoning his stated mission to let us see the characters in his world, instead yielding to the temptation to prove to us all how very hardcore he was "back in the day." There was also nearly constant foreshadowing of doom, but there was not always doom in store. Perhaps this reflects Dubus' mood in life in general, but I felt it told me more about him than about his story.
There were other times I felt like I was sitting at a MFA workshop table with the material in this book. Dubus drops into scenes without letting us really know where we are until pages later. He does this again and again, leading to a bit of disorientation. Rather than paring away extraneous details, he subjects us to an overly detailed account of his fights and developing sexuality as a teen. I appreciate the fact that he wanted to show us how driven by brawn and the frontal lobe of the brain he was as a young man, thereby giving us a hard-won transformation that we would appreciate all the more for the journey. I think some of the hard-edged content is warranted but I would appreciate a lot more of it being summarized. There is a feeling amongst writers that in order for writing to be good, one must be entirely vulnerable and reveal every little embarrassing detail; I disagree with this notion and feel that it simply leads to ego-centered writing in which the writer battles to be seen. We're all prone to this as writers--in one way or another--but it's still a failing when it happens.
All that said, Dubus comes into real strength in the final 1/4 of his book. Having tried to prove himself as a man through his fists and through never running away from a fight, one day he simply picks up a pen as if fate has led him to it. He begins to write, at first badly, and then better and better. He begins to find success. And when it dawns on him that he needs to see people and not seek to be seen, it transforms his life. He becomes empathetic towards the criminals that he supervises in a halfway house and even, in a penultimate scene close to the end of the book, becomes empathetic toward bullies who try to intimidate a group of children on a train which leads to the defusing of the situation (much to his surprise). This scene takes place shortly after Dubus on a sleepless, anxiety-filled night picks up his girlfriend's Bible and reads the words, "Love one another." Through love instead of violence (the latter of which he points out only begets more violence), Dubus begins to find a way to make a positive impact on his world.
Can I be too impatient with Dubus for engaging in some of the ego-centric writing that he is trying to avoid? No, I can't because he is simply a person in transition, striving to become a better man though handicapped through an upbringing that included much abandonment and poverty. I appreciate what he has overcome and that he is trying to walk a better way. I appreciated his words of wisdom and insight about writing and underlined many of them. I appreciated his attempts, at times, to engage a bit with faith. Most of all, I appreciate his effort to lay aside his violent impulses and take up a more intentional and empathetic style of living. This could be a useful corrective to the thousands and thousands of young men (I could add "women," but this is ultimately a book about manhood) who are chained to the harsh taskmaster of anger and rage. There is a way out.
With all this said, however, it was a difficult ride through the first 3/4 of this book and I can only recommend it with hesitancy to the most mature of readers. You will have to slog through a lot of messy humanity before you find a ray of light.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from W.W. Norton & Company. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”