The first four children of the short-story writer Andre Dubus—he had two more, much later, with his third wife—were all born on Marine Corps bases beginning in 1958. Suzanne was the oldest, then Andre III, his brother Jeb, and finally Nicole. Dubus was a Marine Corps officer and rose to the rank of captain. Some of his time was served on the aircraft carrier Ranger in the Far East. After six years of service he resigned his commission in order to become what he had always wanted to be, a writer, and was accepted in the Writers’ Workshop, the celebrated program at the University of Iowa. Kurt Vonnegut was a teacher there at the time, as was Richard Yates.
Life in Iowa City was happy and stimulating. Dubus was a sociable man and so was his wife, Pat. She had been a homecoming queen in Louisiana, where they both were from, and had admired his writing in the local newspaper. After meeting him she broke her engagement to another boy and, following a brief courtship, eloped with Dubus. In Iowa they made friends easily. There was little money but there were frequent parties, drinking, laughing, talking about books and writing. It was a warm, convivial life.
After Iowa, the family moved east where Dubus had a teaching job that paid seven thousand dollars a year. They lived in rural New Hampshire and then on the New Hampshire–Massachusetts line, still giving parties at which friends from the college, poets, creative people, and students, mainly young women, were guests. The happiness began to fade, there were marital fights, and Dubus left home to live with one of the beautiful students.
He was a small man, nice looking, neat in his habits, dedicated to his work, a runner who ran every day after he’d finished writing, and who went to Mass every morning. He liked people, especially women, and made friends easily. He didn’t abandon his children. He gave money to help support them and saw them, all four together, every weekend when he usually took them someplace to eat. Pat and the children had moved to Newburyport at the mouth of the Merrimack River where, as in other towns upriver, commerce had receded, the red-brick mills were empty, stores closed, cars rusting, and life was different than it had been. There, Andre III writes in Townie: A Memoir:
Kids roamed the neighborhood like dogs. The first week I was sitting in the sun on our steps, I made the mistake of watching them go by as they walked up the middle of the street, three or four boys with no shirts, a couple of girls in shorts and halter tops. The tallest one, his short hair so blond it looked white, said, “What’re you lookin’ at, fuck face?”
Then he was on our bottom step. He pushed me hard in the chest and kicked my shin. “You want your face rearranged, faggot?”
Maybe he walked off after that, maybe he punched me in the head, I’m not sure, but of all the places we’d lived so far it was clear this was going to be the meanest.
Later they moved to Haverhill, another boarded-up city, Irish and Italian, with barrooms, it seemed, on every block. The worst part of town was “the avenues” where the roughest elements were, layabouts in black leather jackets, rent collectors, motorcycles, guys itching for a fight. There were fights at school from which Andre III shrank. He was small, afraid, and didn’t know how to handle it. There weren’t gangs but rather feared, aggressive individuals, a big, slope-shouldered, mean kid named Clay Whelan who beat him up three or four times a week, and others, smaller but implacable with a kind of repellent glamour. Andre, his brother, and older sister smoked dope, dropped acid, grew long hair, skipped school, and except for being prey behaved like all their peers. Suzanne began dealing. Jeb practiced the guitar and before long was having sex in his room with his former teacher.
Their mother had a series of boyfriends, one as bad as the next, until she finally settled on Bruce, who was of a different mold, drove a Jaguar, dressed well, had money, and promptly bought bicycles for the four kids. He had seven of them himself and was separated from a wife in Boston. The house was uncared for, dirty dishes piled in the sink, unread books from Iowa days in the bookcase, little in the refrigerator, and children making their own, downward-trending way and their mother commuting to a low-paying job in Boston. It was a trash life. Townie has many scenes of it, the streets, convenience stores, bars, young people, no Steve Jobs among them, no Barack Obama, all of it to the driving sound of music, Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, Pink Floyd, Ten Years After. There was early sex. One of the little hoydens that Jeb was briefly involved with was the sister of Ricky J., a tough rent collector. One day on the street someone said to Andre:
“I wouldn’t want to be your brother right now.”
“‘Cause he’s fucking dead, that’s why.”
The brother of Ricky J., Tommy, nineteen or twenty years old, was coming home on leave from the army to deal with Jeb. He weighed almost two hundred pounds and had almost beaten a biker to death. Fear of his arrival was blowing around like gusts of wind. Then, in a scene from a western, a figure was striding up their street with half a dozen followers in leather jackets and T-shirts. It was Tommy J., a foot taller than either Dubus brother and sixty or seventy pounds heavier. “That’s him, Tommy,” someone said. Before Jeb could get in the house, he was punched hard in the face. “You like my little sister, mothafucka?” Andre tried to intercede. “Tommy, come on,” he pleaded. Another punch in the face. Their mother came running out, grabbing a fallen branch and swinging it, shouting to get out or she would call the cops. “Fuck you, you fuckin’ whore.” He would kill Jeb if he even looked at his sister again. As Tommy J. left, his eyes passed over Andre as if he didn’t exist, as if there was no one there:
I stood in front of the sink and the mirror. I was almost surprised to see someone standing there. This kid with a smooth face and not one whisker, this kid with long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, this kid with narrow shoulders and soft arm and chest muscles and no balls. This kid had no balls. I looked into his eyes: I don’t care if you get your face beat in, I don’t care if you get kicked in the head or stabbed or even shot, I will never allow you not to fight back ever again. You hear me?
Ever. Not once, ever, again.
There was no father to tell this to. Pop, as the older Dubus is called in the book, was teaching at Bradford, the respectable, green-lawned college across the river from Haverhill. He was still in touch with his ex-wife, coming back to family dinners on holidays and seeing his children regularly, but although he’d been told of their being picked on and had tried to do what he could about it, he really did not know what was going on in their lives.
To make himself strong and also strong-looking, Andre began lifting weights. He devoted himself to it fanatically, to bodybuilding and the image of a boy who would be respected and even feared. He was almost sixteen years old and in a few months was working out six days a week, two hours at a time, eating a healthy diet, and by his birthday bench-pressing his own weight. In one session he did a thousand sit-ups. At the same time his grades were improving. One night, cursed at and threatened by two men, he finally steps forward and talks back. He’s punched in the face for it, but he feels triumph. He finally did something, something changed. The fuse was burning.
It becomes like a fight movie, training endlessly, going to a storefront gym, learning to hit, pound the heavy bag with body blows, practice jabs and right crosses, but also a movie like Walking Tall or Billy Jack, getting even, a Clint Eastwood movie with clenched words and deadly action, a movie where the hero, all bloody, looking finished, says, “You better kill me because if you don’t, I’m going to kill you.”
What happened, however, was that Andre’s sister Suzanne was raped. It happened in Boston and late at night, and Andre felt shame somehow for not having been there to protect her, shame for his father, too, and a perverse pleasure that he’d been the one to call his father with the news and its implication that he’d failed his children. The rapists were never identified or found, but the day came when Andre, standing up for his brother against one of the Lynch brothers in a bar on Washington Street, suddenly hit as hard as he could and Lynch went straight down, teeth knocked out, mouth bloody. Andre had crossed the line, hit first, hit hard:
I used to think the butterflies in my stomach meant I was afraid and if I’m afraid it’s because I should be and then I’d get even more butterflies and the adrenaline would back up on me till I couldn’t even move, and I’d just stand there and do nothing….
You can’t let it back up on you. You have to move as soon as it comes. No foreplay. No shoving each other. As soon as you know you’re in a fight, you punch him hard in the face and you keep punching.
He looked in the mirror now and saw the boy who hadn’t backed down or run or pleaded. “I was smiling at him, and he was smiling back at me.”
Townie is not really about town and gown, it’s about the way of the warrior described in straightforward, driving prose that feels almost like the present tense. Dubus is a writer keenly alert to the physical world, its smells, colors, shapes, and substance, and you sense the desire to put things down clearly and exactly so that they will be remembered. Through almost unintentional repetition you come to know the names of streets, bars, the Basilere Bridge, the GAR park, the statue of Hannah Dustin, and Monument Square.
Andre becomes a fighter, not in the ring, although he trains at one time for the Golden Gloves, but a fighter on the side of honor, justice, the weak, the Billy Jack he had dreamed of. Hitting someone in the face without warning takes a certain kind of conditioning and attitude. It’s a violation of another man’s essential person. It’s different from boxing or wrestling where physical violence is condoned and is the whole point, different from violence in any sport. The violence that Andre practiced and describes is a career of slugging men and putting them in the hospital, sometimes wading into groups of them—No, Andre, don’t, the girls are saying, don’t—men in a Chrysler at a wedding reception, men making noise in an alley in Austin, men who terrified a woman in the airport in Miami, and many others made him an avenger, at least in his own eyes, but also a menace. “The retribution that must now be delivered,” he writes at one point. One night he drives his car to scrape the entire length of another car that’s carrying a bumper sticker he doesn’t like. For a time he becomes a Marxist.