So, once upon a time, I lived in Mississippi, and the thing is, living in a town with 8,000 souls makes you trusting. I was walking up to the square for the weekly taping of the Mississippi Public Broadcasting arts variety show, Thacker Mountain Radio and a man about my mom’s age pulled up next to me in a sedan with out-of-state plates. “Excuse me,” he said. “Could you tell me how to get to The Lyric? I’m supposed to be reading tonight on the radio, but I’m really lost.” Ordinarily, I do not get near idling cars with strange men from far away contained within, but he seemed nice (read: I’m a sucker AND I’m an idiot). Anyway, long story short, he realizes I’m freaked out, produces his driver’s license, and I end up driving him to the theatre just in the nick of time.
That man was Andre Dubus, III. He gave me a copy of his book, and we kept in touch. Don’t worry, Mom. That was the first and last time I’ve ever done that.
Townie, which he read from that night, is a memoir of his childhood and young adult years, growing up poor, tough, and without much of a dad in post-industrial Massachusetts. The book is about a lot of things, but more than anything, it’s a long meditation on violence and how that shaped his life. It was strange to square that with the gentle, professional man I met in Oxford that cloudy afternoon. I knew from our chat that he was married and had a couple kids, that they lived in Newbury, and that he was a professor at UMass-Lowell. I had heard that his dad was a famous novelist, too. He was driving a nice rental car and had on a dress shirt. If I had known what I know now of his young adulthood, I wonder if I would have gotten into the car.
Knowing he had this amazing outcome for his life made it an imperative to see him through all the bumps and bruises and terrifying, exhilarating moments that characterized his early days.There are long passages that frankly discuss drug use and a rough home, and I kept imagining a teenager, only to have some reference to “sixth grade” or “eleventh birthday” ground me in the reality of a very fraught childhood. I tore through it in 6 hours.
The thing that’s so astounding about this writing is how brutally honest it is. While he’s clear, as an older man, that he was wrong to be violent and angry, he doesn’t shy away from telling how it was: he went to jail, she were hurt, they died young and warlike, we were never the same. It’s an easy criticism to say that Andre (I can call him that. I’ve driven his car.) casts himself as something of a working-class hero throughout, but I think there’s more to it than that. Maybe it’s that when you’re enmeshed in violence, so wholly engulfed by it for so long, something about it does begin to seem heroic, like there’s a good, true way to be so angry if you can just find it. Maybe part of it is about using his 19-year-old anger to retroactively protect the soft, small 8-year-old who got beaten up on the way home from school. We’re exposed to so much violence on television and in books and at the movies, but most people write anger and violence off as “oh, he’s crazy, she’s insane” and don’t ever sit with it. I could easily be counted among those people. With what’s been happening in the world recently, I find myself not wanting to court those thoughts, but people do not become angry and dangerous and violent overnight; it grows from a seed somewhere inside you.
The conclusion that Andre seems to have reached is that violence, for whatever reason you rationalize it to yourself, is always for you. There’s no way to reach deeply enough to become the Batman; you’re always perpetrating violence to right something inside yourself, and by doing that, you’re not solving a damned thing.
Have you read Townie? What struck you about it? What did you think?
Next week, I’ll be reading this. I would love to talk to you about it.