In January I had the opportunity to attend the ALA Midwinter Sunrise Speaker Series program featuring Andre Dubus III reading from and talking about writing his memoir, Townie.
I did take notes, but what has stuck with me is the fact that writing literally saved his life. Dubus realized while working on this book the extent to which discovering writing at age 21 saved him. He was on a bad road, addicted to brawling, going out to bars hoping to find a fight. He expressed himself with his fists. Once he started writing, that changed. My favorite quote from the morning: “I felt more like me after writing than I ever had.” And that is why he kept at it.
Dubus talked about the intimacy of personal violence. How inappropriate it is to reach out and touch a stranger’s face. Now imagine punching that face. As he put it, you have to “fracture your own humanity” to do it.
Dubus tried three times to write this book as a novel. He hates violence, and wanted to write about fighting without connecting it to his life. Finally he learned that he is not able to write fiction from his own life. As he put it, lots of people can; he is not one of them.
Excerpts from the event are available on YouTube.
DUBUS, Andre. Townie: A Memoir. 400p. Norton. 2011. Tr $25.95. ISBN 978-0-393-06466-7. LC 2010937513.
Adult/High School–Andre Dubus III was eight when his father abandoned the family. As his mother struggled to provide for her three children, Dubus realized that he lacked the size, strength, and attitude to protect himself and his siblings from bullies in their Massachusetts mill town. After his brother was beaten up, Dubus was inspired by the vigilante justice of films like Billy Jack, Death Wish, and Dirty Harry and began a strengthening work-out regimen as a first step toward vengeance. Eventually he became an amateur boxer and perfected the transformation of his anger into controlled violence. When he observed slights to others, he responded violently as if the transgression were personal. Fighting became his life. When a friend was knifed in an altercation, the violence of Dubus’s revenge became so frighteningly out of control that he knew he had to change. Dubus reflects on his youth with a novelist’s attention to detail that perfectly conveys the visceral rage of an adolescent confused and angered by his father’s absence. When his father again became a presence in his life, the faltering reconciliation that followed was transformational. Teens who want more of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (Norton, 1996) will find the cartilage-crushing depictions of fights, both in and out of the ring, to be breathtaking and unnerving. They will also discover a touching and hopeful story of an impoverished family fitfully finding their way through the challenges of drugs, alcohol, and violence.–John Sexton, formerly at Westchester Library System, NY