A few weeks ago I finished reading a memoir called Townie by Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog. Townie was a powerful book on multiple levels; it was raw and visceral, heartbreaking, and utterly inspiring to me as a writer.
Townie is a story of what it’s like to grow up poor, nearly fatherless, and fighting for your life in the streets of Boston in the 1970s and ’80s. It spares no gritty detail on back alleys filled with cigarette butts and broken glass, passing around a pint of Southern Comfort and a joint waiting for the school bus to take them to middle school, and the persistent, soul-crushing stench of the brown, bubbling Merrimack River.
One of my favorite things about reading Townie was Dubus’ formulaic writing style and the way he set up scenes. In the beginning of each new scene, Dubus gives a sentence or two of introduction, then describes in detail the sights, sounds, and particularly the smells. It pulls you in as if you are standing on that street corner, waiting for the fight, too.
Intertwined throughout Dubus’ hard-knock childhood and growing up to defend himself with his fists, is the story of his father. There is a scene in the beginning of the book when his father drives away from the house in the middle of the night leaving their mother with four children under the age of eight, and Andre’s younger brother Jeb runs after the car screaming, “You bum! You bum!”
Years later, when Dubus is at his father’s house for a cookout and his father tosses a baseball to him, he realizes that he doesn’t know what to do. After catching the ball, his father becomes deeply embarrassed to realize that his son doesn’t know how to throw a baseball.
Dubus was bullied during his first years in Lowell, Massachusetts and after running away and doing nothing so many times including watching his brother get jumped, Dubus decides that he’s had enough. He turns to weightlifting to make himself look intimidating and eventually starts boxing where he perfects a swing that ends up sending multiple bar fight participants to the hospital.
The most powerful thing about Townie to me is the story of how Dubus became a writer. Working out had become a vice for Dubus, but there is a scene where he is at his wits’ end and instead of going to the weight bench or the punching bag, he sits down and his meager kitchen table with a notebook and a pen and just writes.
He was getting out on the page the truth about life through characters in fictional stories. For years he worked a series of night jobs so that he would be able to wake up in the morning and write like his father did, when his mind was the freshest.
I’ve been told time and again that I need to write a book about the crazy things that I’ve lived through. I’ve got so many stories that would shock and horrify most people, but they’re just things in my life that’ve happened. They have made me who I am today. But reading Townie proved to me that I can write my book.
In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Dubus writes:
“And here’s to my father who, when I first began to write in my early twenties, told me not to do what he did. ‘Don’t wait till you mama and I are dead before you write about us, son. Just go ahead and write.'”
Reading that gave me the motivation that I needed to get in gear and keep writing. I highly recommend reading Townie to any writer who is struggling with self-censorship or to anyone who loves memoirs. This one brought me to tears.