I’ve just spent about 8 days reading this memoir and here I am, four days later, struggling to write a review.
I should love this memoir. And I do, in certain places.
I love Dubus’s attention to detail and his clinical use of sensory details. The locations in Townie are attentively defined and carefully illustrated.
I love the movement of the narrative. Split into three parts, the memoir is twenty-one chapters of swift scenery. Dubus breaks the chapters down into punctuated moments: scenes loaded with memorable imagery and character-revealing detail that subtly advance the plot. Structured thus, each moment feels as if was designed to Mean (capital M) more than it appears to, the tension growing tighter by the end of each chapter.
I loved that the book chronicled the formation of a violent young man and his eventual maturation away from violence towards a more “creative” outlet. While reading, I loved entering the fight scenes that were wrought with fine detail. While reading, I loved that Dubus recalled the choreography of the fight, who hit whom and with what approximate velocity and then the report of the shot’s severity. I loved reading about this tough guy who lifts weights and attempts to remake his psyche and his physique.
Yet, as I look back on this memoir, these are also some of the things–the constant sensory language, the too-vivid memories of fight sequences, the soft transition from fighter to writer–that eventually strike me as heavy-handed. And then I think: this is a memoir about a violent young man, himself physically heavy-handed. Is this brilliant or basic?
Did this memoir need to record so many disparate acts of violence? Very possibly, yes. In a book about this particular kind of reformation, the more violence you include, the weightier the pay-off in peace-time. At least, it seems the book is designed that way: Part I is nearly half the page-count of the memoir and here we see our narrator come into his own. By the end, he has some stirrings that there is more to life than fists and fury, but it’s actually not until near the end of Part II where Andre Dubus III hears the writer’s call and, on a whim, skips on a training to dabble at home with pen and paper and a cup of tea. And throughout the book Dubus is fighting–sometimes he’s fighting against fighting–until the penultimate incident where he holds his hands, finds peace among violent-prone people.
But for all the heavy-hitting throughout the memoir, the two biggest moments didn’t have the power I expected. But maybe that’s the brilliance of this memoir. Maybe the idea that a book that quite literally puts you in the ring with Dubus, and puts his power in your actual hands, and has this same character seek to leave this world, maybe it makes the most sense for his moments of non-violence and transition to feel like a light jab and not the power shot you expected. It’s a juxtaposition that seems logical, but I was hoping for the knockout.
The book is really about Dubus’s relationship with his father, specifically reconciling his abandonment and the vacuum of masculine influence he found himself within as the family bounces through tough neighborhoods. As such, the final pages of this memoir are some of the finest stuff I’ve read about grief and loss. What Andre and his brother and their friends do in the wake of his father’s sudden death are admirable in a kind of basic, old school way that is admirable and that makes me think about previous generations and blue-collar guys who did the right thing like visit dead friends moms, etc.
But that’s also the part of the book that, as I move away from and reflect back on what happened, sours for me.
Dubus, on his unknowing last night with his father, watches the DeLaHoya fight with his old man. He’s busy, the fight is on late, he isn’t really into it. But, citing some cosmic notion urging him to go there to not “regret it,” he makes it and an opportunity for Andre to reveal his frustrations about his father’s absence, to undo his father’s false assumptions about young Andre’s neither safe nor well-tended youth. Andre, the aggressive, one-step-ahead narrator, doesn’t take the shot.
While it played fairly well during my reading, this segment now seems like too much liberty with the privilege of reflection. I’m not saying it’s impossible he felt this way or thought those things. I’m saying that after three-hundred pages with Andre and his father, and after all they experience together, I wanted that part to be more raw. But it felt too light, somehow empty. I’m pretty sure that’s how it felt for Dubus, too, but I keep wondering–and this is me as writer here, not really as critic–whether (or how) this scene could have been more dramatic.
Throughout the memoir Dubus does the right thing and keeps the fight scenes to practically journalistic detail. You don’t often get the sense that you are supposed to be rooting for him–the hits go in both directions, hurt is felt all around, and Dubus follows up whatever stories of his opponents that he can. However. You’re being told the narrator’s story, so of course you want to see him prevail. In this ways, the memoir is like Rocky humble-bragging about his fighting days and then claiming a moral victory by finally seeing what the rest of the world sees (violence is not the answer). At the very least, you know that you’re reading a memoir: you’re walking with someone on their journey towards redemption, and even as the fists fly with scientific description, you don’t exactly root for Andre to lose.
Maybe that’s a caveat that comes with writing about one’s experience living with physical violence. I’m not sure how else a writer could portray this life other than the way Dubus does in Townie.
Mechanically speaking, Dubus does fine things with language, pacing, structure, and overall arch. He leaves it all out there, and the truth of this review is really to be found in the three or four pages of criticism I’ve deleted, all of which deal with my own shit about grief and violence and fatherhood (and the intersection of all three). So, for that alone, this book gets generally high marks from me. The truth is that I’m more comfortable assessing fiction, and this memoir has shown me the dangers of reading true stories that touch upon themes and topics that you might want to write about. Dangers like wanting a person (and not a character) to have done something different, to have told their story in another way that is more similar to your version of truth. This is not really part of responsible discussion when you discuss fiction. And maybe it shouldn’t be here, either. Because this is real life. Memoir, I’m realizing, is a record, however deliberately arranged and composed, of actual shit that’s happened to an actual person. And it’s a ridiculous thing to point at another nonfiction writer and say, “Hey, you should miss your dad more.”
The upside of my struggle with this review and, more specifically, this memoir, is knowing now that this kind of dangerously personal critical impulse helps you (me, the potential memoirist) see more clearly what they want to say about the world. The risk, I see, is knowing this kind of lazy, personal criticism may one day be aimed at you, too. That someone out there will struggle with accepting your own decisions in writing and in life.
So, thanks to Andre Dubus III for getting me off-balance with this memoir. It’s a little too early in my memoir-review career to say that this is one of the best I’ve read, but I’ll be going back to this book again for all kinds of lessons.