TOWNIE by Andre Dubus III

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.

 

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Why I’m (Really) Writing

 

First, it was for friendship. We’re talking middle school, and I remember an emerging awareness of popularity, of some nascent knowledge that there was cool and not cool. I decided that, in sixth grade, I was not cool. But, luckily for me, cool was just being defined. And there were some leaders of cool emerging, and I remember trying to use a school writing assignment to get me to be cool. I knew the players, the boys and the girls, who were already on that list. So I wrote a short story where the cool guys and cool girls all end up together–real names and everything–and I showed it to the most approachable cool guy at the time, who laughed and showed it around to the others and before long, I was sitting somewhere else in the lunchroom.

This was mostly luck, and this could have ended in brutal bullying (although, maybe I was more confident than I felt back in 1992). But I also see this as the first time I knew writing could yield currency. In this case, the currency of friendship. Which you know means the next example: love.

Of course I used writing to attempt to woo girls. And I don’t know if it ever worked to get anyone’s attention, but I had a girlfriend whom I really thought I loved in middle school and I wrote stories about her (nice ones, romantic ones, with personification and everything) and she stuck around for a long time.

Writing, though, primarily helped me say what couldn’t be said. When I would grow frustrated with one of my parents, often it was dad and often it had to do with the drink, I couldn’t speak the hurt or frustration or disappointment or encouragement that I wanted to share. I felt too small. So, I would write letters. I’d leave them in places around the house where only the addressee would find it: sock drawers or work boots or, my favorite, inside the pillow case. And, strangely, they would write back. It wasn’t perfect, but I could find peace in just writing those letters. Usually, by the time I snuck the folded paper into its barely-hiding place, I was empty of whatever I’d been feeling when I addressed the letter.

There is another kind of writing I’ve experienced that I’m reluctant to talk about because it’s seems, I don’t know, maybe stereotypical, maybe self-aggrandizing, maybe like total bullshit. I’m talking about the call of writing, the kind of writing that is of a different kind of currency–more electric than financial. The kind of writing that just appears suddenly with you and you no choice but to get it out. It’s the kind of writing that is not entirely yours but makes you feel lucky that you were asked to help.

This first happened to me, also, in middle school. I was riding in my cousin’s family car, six of us on the way to a barbecue in Upstate New York. I sat behind the driver’s side, I had a window. We were driving along these really idyllic-seeming places in the country: I yellow meadows and white sunlight and flat space to roam and the mountains and green forest beyond. I felt an urgency overtake me. I asked for a pen and some paper and someone gave me a small notebook and a blue marker. (To think that I must have held that urgency while whoever went digging for a pen and paper, that nobody in the car, ont aunt or uncle or cousins, asked what I expected to accomplish in the rumbling back seat. How lucky.) It was an insistent, pushing feeling, and when they gave me the pen and paper I started to draw the countryside, a deer and some pine trees and clouds, and then I started to go a little blank and then I wrote a poem. And I felt euphoric while writing it, wrapped in something safe but definitely apart from me. The poem was about god and nature and sunlight. I don’t remember if I read it out loud (I probably was too self-conscious for that, because I know it felt weird to have such a powerful experience happen to me and not because of me), and I don’t remember giving the poem to anyone. But somehow my aunt and my father (who were not exactly close to one another) both carried copies of that poem with them for a long time.

So, here I am, blizzard around me, baby sleeping in the room above me, and I’m still tapping away at this keyboard, still trying to articulate what it is that needs getting out. I’m not always sure about what to say or when. But about writing, I can say that I still do the work for those same reasons I hit upon in middle school: to impress existing friends or to make new ones; to ensure my wife still likes me; to articulate that which requires time and exact language to express; and to satisfy this sometimes-pulsing, automatic desire to create. Of course, the inspirations all factor in at varying degrees now. For example, I know my wife loves me, and I know that she prefers a lovingly prepared meal to a quick love note (but only barely). And, well, I have friends, but I’m always looking for more. And those spiritual inspirations are easier to come by when they are cultivated with practice and patience. And it’s only in the quiet space of writing that I can often see what I truly believe about a topic or a memory or a narrative possibility.

But I’m still not sure where the urge to write comes from. I don’t remember learning how to read or write, so maybe that’s where the dust got all kicked up. Maybe in that empty part of my memory where the rudiments of language were sparked and welded to my synapses, maybe that’s where the magic is stored: it must be in that great gift of literacy that the daemons and geniuses live out their hectic and beautiful days, silently urging some of us who are more sensitive to their touch to open up again and again and again.

 

 

Some Things About Mary: The Liars’ Club & Mary Karr’s Lessons

I came to Mary Karr’s work in a way unlike I’d arrived at any other writer’s work. I’m usually pretty linear about the writers I read: an author I like mentions this other author in an interview or on their acknowledgements page, or the internet aggregates me a list of writers whose work I might like based on liking this other author, etc.

But Mary Karr seemed to haunt me. I’d first read her name a while back when I was googling alumni from the MFA program I dropped out of (turns out she went there, too). From then on, she pretty consistently showed up on internet lists and in interviews or research for my classes, usually linked somehow with other authors she’d cut her teeth with in the writing world. So she was chimerical until she wasn’t.

I picked up her third and most recent memoir, Lit, the week before my daughter was born. I hadn’t bought a memoir since The Glass Castle, and this book was total chance. With the baby pending, I was curious about alcoholism and this book was being sold as a recovery story. It’s a family condition of mine and, as I was about to start my own family, I needed to hear from someone else about what alcoholism looked like.

Lit, which is also billed as a kind of conversion memoir in addition to a recovery piece (Karr discusses her sobriety and her eventual enchantment by the Catholic church) is about grief and age and relationships. Lit introduced me to the distinctive Karr voice. It also introduced me to a narrative approach that was so much whimsy and folklore and absolute precision that I knew I was learning from someone with a lot to share.

The memoir itself I can’t speak upon too much, only the writing impressions that it gave. This is not because the book itself is not memorable. It was simply overshadowed by the birth of my daughter: this was the book I was reading just before my wife went into labor–and I mean just before, as in Lit was the book I read while curled up on a squeaky leather recliner in the delivery room next to my epidural-sleep-induced wife. I might not recall too much specifically, but my sense memory of this book is that it was exactly what I needed at that moment: wise and honest and just snarky enough to remind me to keep my feet in my boots.

Before I decided to revisit nonfiction writing  I frequently suggested to my wife that she write about her childhood (this may turn out to be a classic case of giving out the advice that you,  in fact, need to heed.) So when Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir came out this autumn, my wife ordered a copy for herself. She’d later tell me, when I began reading the as-yet untouched hardcover, she knew when she ordered it that the book was really for me.

But I haven’t finished The Art of Memoir. In fact, I stopped about halfway. For two reasons: one, I have been in enough writing classes and read enough writing guides to already know the basics (which is sort of how that book starts); the other reason was that she was so smart and authoritative in the early chapters that I wanted to be on the same page as her. Karr talked about her own decisions as a writer so fluidly and taught the work of other authors in a way that I just had to get into some of the work she discussed. I stopped after her chapter on Nabokov, went to the back of the book, and made a list. I’ll get back to The Art of Memoir after I knock a few titles off of my reading list, and get some of my own chapters down.

At the top of my reading list was Karr’s first memoir, The Liars’ Club. Official review: holy shit. As someone who aspires to write memoir, reading about her youth made me feel absolutely unqualified to write about my own life. (To which I quickly reminded myself: fuck that.)

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I don’t want to summarize what she goes through because that’s not going to do anything other than diminishing Karr’s efforts on the page via my shitty summary. From this memoir, I learned that–just as Karr purports in the early chapters of The Art of Memoir–voice is crucial to telling the story. And she is so dexterous with this faculty as an artist that she weaves in the most powerful voices–her mother’s and father’s–in the most purposeful and affecting ways. As the story of a girlhood, Karr utilizes a voice that slips and slides from her own pre-adolescent goofiness into zingers from her mother before standing long and strong in the drawl of her Texas oil-worker daddy. This memoir taught me how important it is, if you come from a heritage of story-tellers, to try and let them tell their stories. At least that’s one of the things I think this memoir does masterfully: she demonstrates the keen hurt and awe inspired by her parents and their decisions while also building their personae to the larger-than-life people they must have seemed to young Mary. And while the memoir is not sentimental, it is still emotionally devastating. Karr’s memoir is really an unsentimental love letter to her mother and father. And it’ll wreck you in that way, too.

Voice is the engine of this piece, and much has already been said elsewhere about Karr’s ability to pull poetry from Texas colloquialisms. But, for me, the real power of the memoir is the way Karr suspends reality in a book that is based on reality. And, again, it’s not the surreal nonfiction events, per se. What pushed this memoir from great to masterpiece for me is how deft Karr is at highlighting moments and elements of her life to build the tapestry of the story. She so carefully positions her family’s dysfunctions among the town’s distinctively brackish hue that you can’t seem to remember you are reading about folks who are not always as wild as they seem. She isn’t lying, she’s telling the story in the way that the best story tellers–the Liars’ Club and its chief raconteur Pete Karr–tell stories: deliberately and dramatically. And while she has a good deal to say early on in The Art of Memoir about honesty, in The Liars’ Club shows us how to shade your details via images and language and scene to present a narrative world so specific and moody and believable that this story could only have happened in these places. This is an essential element for any kind of prose or poetry, and Karr puts on a clinic for all kinds of writers in this book.

So. That’s Memoir #1 for True-Thousand Sixteen. I’m into this. Next up: Townie by Andre Dubus III. See you in a week or so, friend.

 

 

 

True Thousand Sixteen: My Year of Memoir

For ten years I’d been struggling to write, depending on when you asked me, what was either a novel or a collection of loosely-related short stories that hinged on a coming of age theme or dealt with poverty or depression or aggression. but it was always about boys and being a boy. Or change, or something. But it was a fiction, whatever it was. And whatever it was, it didn’t get done for ten years.

What got done in that decade was a lot of guilt and shame and worry and hype and starting and stopping–a whole goddamn lot of starting and stopping. There was, too, therapy and talks with the wife and talks with the self and the spirit and the steering wheel on the highway and the cemetery trees above my father’s grave and then too, I guess, talks with whatever is left down there of him nearly six years later. None of it got me to stay at the desk.

And then, the baby came. No metaphor, legit: my wife had a baby. Little girl came along and my world shifted within and without. And then, actually, I got really sad. Had an awful winter, morose, angry and anxious, and I’m glad little Bear was too tiny to know it. Of course, though, none of my darkness was cast at or towards her or my wife. The worst part of that winter was how badly I was able to abuse myself (and not in the fun, vaselined manner you’re used to). The gym, my previous endorphin-inducing salvation from The Sadness, was no longer cutting it. One snowy afternoon, after an intense workout, I called my wife and broke my heart open: amidst the drifting powder and the honking, clanging big rigs on the NJ Turnpike, I cried my eyes out, admitted defeat and depression. The deadlifts were no longer enough. I was scared.

And scared got me moving, scrambling to get better.

So it was more work to get right. When I resurfaced, I asked some old writing friends from grad school, folks who were also looking for something beyond themselves to anchor them to their projects, to join my efforts to finally get this thing written.

By the end of the summer, I had what felt like a few solid stories and some new characters growing. I knew the fall would be rough–big overseas trip for the wife, a wedding down south–and I was wary of the winter triggering big-time blues amongst the holiday rush. I decided to hold off on writing until January, and to just sit with the story and let it be.

Letting it be was like being in dark room with a tiny light source in the corner. When I looked directly at the glow it disappeared, but if I looked slightly away from the light it shone again. This is what happened in the past few months and maybe had been happening in the past decade.

The stories I’d set out to tell were all jammed up because I was in the way of them. The truth, I slowly understood, was I was trying to re-invent a moment in my life and in the reinventing I was obliterating the heart of the story. I was trying to add glitter to a light bulb and it was utterly pointless and very fucking messy for me.

So, in 2016, I’m putting aside the glitter (at least this glitter, I’ll keep my other glittering habits as they were) and just letting that bare bulb shine. My most formative, serious creative writing class as an undergrad was a Creative Nonfiction class. It was some of the most fulfilling writing that I had ever done and yet, because of my tendency towards self-abuse (as noted above) and my inherent grandiosity (as noted in some of the purpler prose here), I overlooked the simple truth: I’m not a liar. I’m honest, typically to a fault, and it’s time to let that shit be true all around, especially in my biggest writing project.

In the coming months I’ll be posting here and on Medium.com, just as a way of keeping me at the desk (yes, imagined reader, you matter) but I’ll be working on the story as it first began, as memoir. And, in the coming year or maybe more, I’ll have something that does what I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember: tell a story that you’ll never forget.

See you around.

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The Return of the Actually Pretty Doable Summer Reading Challenge

The Actually Pretty Doable Summer Reading Challenge was something I came up with in 2013 to make sure I read as much as possible. Then, in 2014, my wife and I had our first child and neither of us have read an entire book since. But now baby is nearly a year old, and mommy and daddy are ready to get their nerd on again. Thus: TAPDSRC is back.

From the 2013 description: this reading challenge is just tough enough to be interesting without being boring. All participants agree to attempt to read 10 books in 10 weeks.

Not so bad, right?

Here’s the Actually Pretty Doable part of the Challenge: of the 10 books you read, 1 book must be over 500 pages (also known as the Long Book), and 1 book must have been first published over 100 years ago (also known as the Old Book). These should NOT be the same book.

You may choose from any genre or form of literature that you please.

You can share your progress by joining the Goodreads or Facebook Group and following the instructions below.

Instructions:

Prior to the official start date of June 21, 2015, each participant must post their Official List on either the Goodreads or Facebook page.

As you complete your books you should post a note to whichever group you’ve joined (facebook or GR) and let us know what you thought. You are also encouraged to post updates as you go, but everyone is expected to leave a brief review after completing each book. And don’t be shy! If you like the sound of a book, ask some questions! If you’ve already read a title another member is attempting, feel free to geek out all over each other. You know: fun things.

Here are the rules:

  1. Read 10 books between June 21 and August 31, 2015.
  2. You must have one Long Book and one Old Book. Long Books must be +500 pages. Old Books must be +100 years old. These can NOT be the same book.
  3. Post your final 10 book choices before June 22, 2013.
  4. Leave a brief review of each book after you’ve completed it.
  5. Do it again next summer!

Don’t forget to keep us updated on twitter and Instagram with #10books10weeks

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