Tom Wolfe titled one of his books “A Man in Full,” and the word “full” came to me when I tried to think of a word to describe the story that Andre Dubus III tells us in his fiercely honest new memoir “Townie.” He grew up between two worlds, the campus life of his father’s Bradford College and his divorced-mom’s mean lanes of Newburyport and Haverhill, hoping not to be paralyzed by a bully’s punch. To survive, he decided he must become a fighter himself, and he became almost too proficient for his own good. I’ve known Andre for a few years and consider him a friend, but it would be presumptuous for me to say I really know him. What he has given me, given everyone, with this story is an astonishing account of about half of his life, if he lives to be 100. He has offered it out of that pure humane generosity that moves the best of artists to try to tell us what it is like to be alive in the world.
I choose the term “story” because it is not a documentary film of every moment of his past, but that doesn’t mean it is any less true or exact. There is literal truth and there is poetic truth. Looking back, making a composition of memories, the writer of this kind of book does his or her best to convey to the reader what happened, what it felt like, and what it means. It is a huge challenge to reconstitute one’s own experience, and Andre is masterful in the telling with “Townie.”
Other than serving in the military as his father did, Andre’s journey in his first 30 years is about as full a one as a young American man might have. The memoir takes us through his tumultuous first 30 years and ten years beyond, to 1999, when he is deep into his own writer’s life, married, and raising children. Andre’s father was the esteemed writer and a Marine captain of the same name, author of “Separate Flights,” “Voices from the Moon,” and other books. The son’s autobiographical writing doubles as a family-angled biography of his dad or “Pop,” as he calls him.
For those of us who care deeply about this historic place along the river, Andre renders with a painterly realism the people and locations of the lower Merrimack Valley from the days President Kennedy’s administration onward. Like Jane Brox, Dave Daniel, Steve O’Connor, Jay Atkinson, and others writing today, Andre is creating a literature of this place in time. We’re better for this telling and listening. We’re not strangers as much.
Family sufferings and joys have been the source of great drama forever, and Andre lets us inside his world as he tries to make sense of it on the page. Violence and abuse of every type overload the narrative until the reader wants relief, but imagine what it was for his family to endure what he describes? We want him to turn the tables, and he does, to the point where he risks almost everthing. There is a crucial moment that sets him on another path, and he says to his father one day: “I think I should be doing something more creative.”
He begins to write stories. Putting words together, forming sentences, finding a way to take his interior life and make it a real thing outside of himself, as substantive as the boards he nailed to earn money—that action deeply affected him. He writes, “I felt more like me than I ever had, . . . and I knew then that if I wanted to stay awake and alive, if I wanted to stay me, I would have to keep writing.”