Andre Dubus' III's "Townie" gives a devastating condemnation of the '60s and its breaking of social norms. Like so many other personal memoirs in recent years, "Townie" examines excruciating details of a bleak childhood. While not reaching the best of the genre, such as books by Mary Karr and Joe Queenan, Dubus finds strange, poignant beauty in his story of violence, parental neglect, and the '60s "let it all hang out" philosophy.
I checked out the book at the library, and its pages are stained with substances whose origins I was reluctant to think about too closely. The dark stains are a good match for the book, which tells how Dubus' father, the noted writer Andre Dubus II, left his family for younger women and how Dubus II's mother was unable to cope with the resulting poverty and her responsbilities as a mother.
Dubus II was a saintly, heroic figure to me when I read his essays about how he coped with devastating injuries received an a horrible accident on a Boston interstate, but "Townie" paints him as an irresponsible father, philanderer, alcoholic and bloodthirsty lover of violence. Like William Styron, whose daughter, Alexandra blasted her father in a recent memoir, Dubus II is pilloried by a child who also became a writer.
"Townie" gives repeated scenes of bar fighting, apparently the only growth industry in the economically deprived Massachusetts town where he grew up. Dubus III tells how he starts out as a frequent victim of bullies, then builds himself up through weightlifting and boxing lessons to turn into a brutal fighting predator himself. As with other memoirs, the sense of place is strong, with the economically ruined town and the polluted Merrimack River somehow given a perverse pastoral uniqueness.
The book ends with reconciliation, as Dubus finds peace as a writer and cares for his father, whose legs were crushed by a car that ran over him when he'd stopped to give aid to a couple whose vehicle had broken down on the interstate.
Dubus IIi follows the well-worn personal memoir template, but does it with vivid language. He would have benefited from better editing; he shows an irritating fondness for run-on sentences, and his narrative control slackens at times. While not quite a classic of the genre, "Townie" is a worthy look at how family love and endurance overcomes human weakness.