Tuesday, March 8th, 2011
“I write every morning because it scares the shit out of me. It’s like fighting: One, you’re opening yourself up to whatever comes, and two, you might fail. It’s hard not to feel totally alive in that moment.”
Lately there has been lots of earnest hand-wringing about “cyberbullying.” When Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog, was growing up in Haverhill, Mass., bullying wasn’t anonymous insults over Facebook. It was constant, justified terror of beatdowns—and worse—by poor, drunk, drugged-up kids “who roamed the neighborhood like dogs.”
Skeptical? Intrigued? Read Dubus’s engrossing memoir, Townie, and you’ll get to know and feel this world—and what it took to survive it. At first, on a primal level, it took shame- and rage-fueled hours lifting weights in his basement, plus learning how to fight at a local boxing gym. Later, on the emotional and psychic levels, it took much more.
Dubus describes how fighting gave his teenage self an identity and allowed him to protect his siblings in his father’s absence. (His father, the eminent short-story writer of the same name, lived oceans away across the Merrimack River, writing, teaching then marrying future wives, and largely shirking father duties.) Over time he develops a taste for it, enacting his Dirty Harry fantasies by pummeling boorish drunks and, later, fratboys during college at the University of Texas. The crucial turn, in the book as in life, comes when Dubus bravely confronts not another foe but the secret selfishness of this violence. The epiphany lands after sending a rude punk in the Miami airport to the hospital. As other passengers pat him on the back, he sees himself as “depleted, ugly, and wrong.”
Dubus surprises himself by starting to write, an activity that, in one of the book’s many surprising insights, transforms his fighting prowess and mentality into something redemptive. His ability to break through the “membrane” around him and then the one around his victim—the thing that made him a badass fighter—becomes imaginative empathy, the writer’s lifeblood.
Fans of Dubus’s fiction will thrill to reading his muscular, occasionally lyrical prose rendering his own life. They will also like the passages late in the book that take the reader behind the curtain of the writer’s art as Dubus sees and practices it. Fans of Dubus père will bask in the fresh light cast here by the son, a light warmed by their loving kinship as adults. And everyone will be fascinated by this admirable, strange life and how, slowly and indirectly, it widens out to suggest truths about America, its men, and their peculiar need to “turn a wound into a wounding.”
How did the book come about? Was it your idea to do a memoir?
I had no intention of doing one. I haven’t read many, not even Angela’s Ashes or [Jeannette Walls’s] The Glass Castle. I did read [Tobias Wolff’s] This Boy’s Life.
I was working on a book of personal essays, a form I love. One was about baseball and its mythic place in America. I got baseball from my son, who’s 18. I had to learn how to throw a ball. Of course, it’s usually the other way around. How’d I miss baseball?
I wrote into that question and really got into it. A hundred pages in, I thought, Shit, this isn’t a baseball essay anymore! I felt I was in the same territory as when I’d tried to write fiction out of my childhood experience: a mill town in the 1970s, single mom, rough streets, drugs and sex at a young age, no Dad, Nixon, Vietnam. I tried three times over several years, and it always fell on its face.
So, in writing about baseball I got back into this material. I was surprised it was coming the way it was. I decided to write it straight this time. I still felt reluctant to publish it.
Part of it was just the usual [ironic tone] “psychic trembling before the public gaze,” but actually I’ve always been an open-book, no-boundaries guy—”How much do you make?…Oh really, I make so and so…”
Mainly, it was not wanting to violate my family’s privacy. Also, I didn’t want people to know how cowardly I was. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have written it, much less have it published.
What did you discover writing this book?
Writing always teaches me something; it’s a deep mining thing. I’d never known how to write about [my fistfighting days]. The answer that came to me was: through the weak, scared boy I’d been. I thought for years that my rage—which was the reason I won more fights than I lost—was from being bullied. That was 1/20th of it. The real cause was my broken family and home.
In your Acknowledgments you thank your editor for “helping me to find the true book within the one I’d first written.” Was there a scrapped first draft?
I tend to overwrite and shave it down. There was so much I couldn’t put in; it’d be too long. I had a whole section about when I was a bounty hunter in Mexico. Alane [Salierno Mason] got me to write more honestly about the family stuff, to go deeper. She saw that that was the heart of the book.
How was writing this book different from writing fiction?
Of course, you have to be loyal to the facts. The James Frey debacle has made everyone more careful. But it felt more similar to a novel than I thought it would. I saw a Charlie Rose interview with Mike Nichols, who said that reporters ask, What happened? and novelists ask, What’s it like to be inside the thing that happened? With this book I was off the hook for the events, so the creative juice went to capturing more fully what the experience of the events was like.
Do you think there’s a crisis of masculinity in America? A dissatisfaction with the sensitive-guy ideal that was supposed to correct the repressed, macho, and/or remote model?
I wrestle with it. It’s a confusing time for us. I think men are beautiful creatures. The same aggression that goes into breaking a coffee cup over someone’s face can go into putting up an I-beam while building a beautiful house. One of the shadow sides of feminism is the misunderstanding that equality means we’re the same.
At the end of the book you seem to achieve a synthesis of the two extremes. Is that the solution?
I think so. For me the synthesis is between art and athletics. A daily artistic and athletic practice makes me feel vital. I’ve been a gym rat since I started lifting as a kid. And I write every morning because it scares the shit out of me. It’s like fighting: One, you’re opening yourself up to whatever comes, and two, you might fail. It’s hard not to feel totally alive in that moment.
There are lots of economically depressed places where people drink, do drugs, and fight. New England is particularly Hobbesian, more than people might think. You describe a kid throwing a Molotov cocktail in your car, another trying to burn you alive at the stake, another swatting an old lady in the face with a pine branch for no reason. Talk about the role of place in the book.
When I left Massachusetts, I swore I’d never go back. I associated it with ignorant, alcoholic, violent people. But it’s one of the things I’d been wanting to paint for years, the blue-collar life in a New England former mill town. Yeah, it’s kinda brutish, but there are some beautiful women, some great humor…[chuckles].
John Updike called my dad “The Bard of the Merrimack Valley,” because he set his stories here. But, as much as I love his work, his characters have never been recognizable in my experience of the place.
Writing this, place was a palpable other character. If the heart of a book is character, the lungs are place—they allow the character to live and breathe.
I also wanted to capture the early ’70s. Now, there’s a ridiculous nostalgia for that time. It was a bleak decade, the hangover after the sixties. We went from this incredible time to Disco and happy faces.
Do you edit yourself as you write?
I follow whatever intuitive tributaries appear. Then I read it. Often my reaction is, “That’s nice; that’s something you needed to know about this character, but it can be one page, not 60.”
How long did it take to get that?
Ten, fifteen years.
You use similes and metaphors judiciously—there aren’t many, and they all land. Do they come easily to you, or do you have to work for them?
They come more readily than I let them in. When I was young, I used way too many, like all young writers. Now I cut more than the reader will see. They seem to come from this restraint, more so than if I was milking them.
I’m working on some fiction now that’s more impressionistic, but generally I just don’t like showy language.
What surprised you writing this book?
I didn’t think my father would come into it as much. What I was painting was fatherlessness. But he became present as this huge absence.
A novelist couldn’t have come up with a better climax than the scene where you’re burying him and some townies drive by and curse you all out—the family, a priest—for no reason. It allowed you to dramatize transcending your old instinct to get in your car and hunt them down.
I felt the book going toward his death and that scene. This is the only book I’ve written that felt compelled, where the book itself had to be written whether I wanted it to or not. It was a strange experience.
The book shows that you have a well-developed faculty of self-observation, and you seem comfortable with psychological terms. Have you been in therapy?
For one year, after Pop died. Within a six-month period, I turned 40, lost my father, and got rich and famous. I didn’t know how to have money in the bank—it sounds so pathetic. I’m still far more comfortable with my back against the wall, figuratively speaking—and literally!
I drove to Cambridge every week, and my therapist said two things: One, you literally don’t know how to have things go consistently well, and two, you’re hard-wired for bad news. I also learned that the weird physical stuff I had as a kid were anxiety attacks.
Finally, Andre Dubus III, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Can do better, will do better.
Edward Lovett is a writer, tutor, and jazz crooner. He lives in Brooklyn.
BUY Townie: A Memoir.
VISIT the author’s website.
READ an excerpt from Townie.