Andre Dubus III does not look like a man on a journey. Instead, sitting at an outdoor table at the Standard Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, the 51-year-old author appears, finally, to have arrived. That may seem a stretch, especially when you consider that his 1999 novel "House of Sand and Fog" was an Oprah Book Club selection and a finalist for the National Book Award, but Dubus has never had an easy road.
The son of the late short-story writer Andre Dubus, he spent the early years of his career being compared, or confused, with his father. "One journalist," he recalls in his memoir "Townie" (W.W. Norton: 389 pp., $25.95), "said, 'God, don't you want to do something different from your father? Why don't you go into another field?' " At the time, such reactions were a source of conflict: "I was his firstborn son with the same name writing fiction, too," Dubus writes. "What did I expect?"
Now, however, he has come through to the other side.
"For me," he says, his voice touched with the broad vowels of eastern Massachusetts, "the challenge has always been to separate. You've got to slay the parent to become yourself, right?" He laughs. "But at the same time, we're joined forever, especially with the same name."
The father-son dynamic is a running theme in "Townie," but it's far from the only one. More to the point, the book offers a stirring portrait of life in the 1970s in the decaying mill towns north of Boston, especially Haverhill, where Dubus was raised. One of four children, he was, along with his siblings, cut loose after his parents divorced in the late 1960s, largely responsible for himself. His father wrote his stories and taught at Haverhill's now-defunct Bradford College; his mother struggled to make ends meet.
"I give her full credit for staying," Dubus reflects, "but she gave up and lost control of the house." In "Townie," he recalls how, in the afternoons when school was over, his empty house became party central, "another place for kids to gather and get high." He traces the sprawling vacuity of his adolescence, the drugs and alcohol, the casual sex and easy violence, the sense that there were no adults, ever, to intercede.
"For a long time," he explains, "I've wanted to write about my generation, about being a teen when Vietnam was ending, about acting like part of the counterculture when the counterculture didn't exist anymore. We were really a generation in the middle, 10 years younger than the Vietnam generation, 10 years older than Generation X." In "Townie," he re-creates the era, down to his ponytail and Dingo boots. He also adds a filter throughout the book by pulling back to tell us what happened to the people of whom he writes — those who ended up dead or in jail or on the streets.
For Dubus, such a strategy is a reaction to what he calls "the fixed parameter of memoir," the way the truth can hem you in. But if at first he had no intention of developing a memoir, the material didn't give him any choice.
"I didn't want to write it," he says, "but the book kept insisting on itself. I'd tried before to find a way into some of this stuff, and here it was." The difference was that his prior attempts had come in the form of fiction — two failed novels about his family and his early life. In those unfinished efforts, he had been stuck, locked into his experience, unable to engage with what he loved most about writing fiction, "that moment when you step into the unknown."
Then, while working on an essay about his brother and baseball, he found himself returning to the story he had never quite been able to tell. "I was turning 50," Dubus recalls, "so, spiritually, it felt like the right thing to do, for my kids if nothing else, to explain where I was from. As I used sharper language, it opened my memory, and the scenes just started to come."
Many of these scenes involve Dubus' evolution from a scared kid to a fighter who solves his problems with his fists. In one of the book's most shocking sequences, he and some friends go after three men one night in retaliation for a knifing, leaving them beaten and bloody in a coffee shop. "Go, go, go," Dubus writes, the language reflecting his adrenaline. "Just throw that first punch, these words I left behind as I ran across the lot for the glass doors." Once inside, his attack is so brutal that his girlfriend is left terrified of him.
"For years, I tried to write about this," Dubus starts, and then stops, as if deciding how much to reveal. "No," he says finally, "I haven't tried. I haven't known how to begin. I didn't know how to write about violence without seeming like a dangerous lunatic. But even more, I couldn't begin because I didn't have the courage to go back and admit that I was once a cowardly boy. Now, at 51, I just want to hold that kid, but it's taken me 20 years to get to that point."
Dubus' willingness to share his shame and brutality is a key to "Townie," which is uncommonly revealing about both. But even more, it allows him to focus the same sharp lens on his family — writing about his older sister's rape, which catalyzed a sense of anger and paranoia (afterward, his father started carrying handguns), or his younger brother's suicide attempts.
No one is more scrutinized here than the elder Dubus, who died in 1999. He is both an absence and a presence, a spectral figure in his children's childhood and later a drinking buddy, a compatriot, once they reach a certain age. This makes for a vivid tension, with Dubus seeking his approval as he reminds us that "[w]hen trouble came, our father just was not the man we'd ever turned to." Now, he says, "I don't think I could have written this if he was alive. It's the primal loyalty, and the last thing I want to do is to betray my parents."
At the same time, he feels obligated to tell it like it was.
"I learned a lot about myself in writing this," he continues. "How could I not have felt fatherless with him out of the picture so much of the time?" And yet, one can't help thinking, his father would have understood his son's need to tell the story. Indeed, in the acknowledgements, Dubus quotes him: "Don't wait till your mama and I are dead before you write about us, son. Just go ahead and write." It's a bittersweet statement that resonates.
"Writing this," Dubus explains, "was cathartic — in a sideways way, by accident — because it has always hurt my feelings, the assumption that things were somehow easier for me because I was his son. It's hard to endure that illusion, when in many ways I wasn't fathered. So maybe this is a severing, after all."