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Hit First, Hit Hard’

After college, back in Haverhill working at a halfway house called Phoenix East, there is a spellbindingly written account of one of the inmates, Donny C., whom he finds in the kitchen one night standing shirtless in boxer shorts with a butcher knife pressed to his throat. Andre persuades him to come and talk, and he does, still holding the knife. Donny complains that he can’t breathe, the counselors won’t let him swear or fight, and if he can’t do those things and be himself he might as well be dead. Andre understands. With the glint of the knife still between them, he describes an image that comes from his own heart:

…Donny with a good job making good money, all dressed up and out on a date with a beautiful woman, walking down a city street at night when a man steps from the shadows to give them shit and Donny takes care of business before the man can even get started.

Donny begins to nod his head, yeah. The thing is, he didn’t need to change his ways but instead to hold on to the things that gave him self-identity and merely add new and presumably more socially desirable things to them. Andre had himself already gone through the process. A few years earlier he’d begun to write and to sublimate his rage into words on a page.

He had read his father’s stories when he was first in college at Bradford, and his mother had suggested to him once that he should write, but he’d dismissed the idea. He admired his father’s writing, but he felt it was also a cop-out. He listened to his girlfriend, who was a student in one of his father’s classes, repeatedly praise a writer in the class, and one day he found a copy of this writer’s story on her bed.

He read it and was deeply impressed. It appears that writing was latent in him and one day, alone in his apartment, he sat down and simply began. He was working in construction at the time and training for the Golden Gloves but something else was beginning. In time he would approach writing with the same dedication and almost religious intensity that he had devoted to making himself inviolate. He would sit down every morning without expectation or judgment, without ego or self-image involved, and wait for something true to come.

On the night of July 23, 1986, driving home from Boston where he had gone to pursue some research for something he was writing, Andre Dubus, the father, slowed down for a car that had hit a motorcycle. A young couple, stunned, their faces bloody, sat in the car. Dubus helped them out and tried to flag down an oncoming car in the darkness. At the last moment, unaccountably, it swerved toward them. Dubus pulled the woman out of the way, but he and the young man were hit at high speed, almost sixty sickening miles an hour. The young man was killed. Dubus was critically injured, both of his legs were crushed. There were ten operations on the right one. In the end it had to be amputated just below the knee, and the left one was so severely damaged that Dubus was never able to use it again.

He was fifty years old, an admired writer whose influences included Chekhov and Hemingway and whose work was somewhere between them, truthful, detailed, and with a kind of honorable sentimentality. He drank in the evenings, went to baseball games in Boston, and after his daughter’s rape began collecting usa ble guns—at the time of the accident he was carrying three of them—but at the core he was a disciplined, dedicated writer. He sometimes played opera as he wrote. He sometimes wore a Japanese kimono. Writing was the real center of his life, apart from his Catholicism. The day before his right leg was amputated, he was cheerful when visited by Andre. A devastating operation lay ahead. Dubus had been a runner all his life, and Andre had sometimes run with him. Andre bent down and kissed the bare right foot goodbye.

For the last twelve years of his life, the elder Dubus was essentially a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair. His third wife, with whom he’d had two daughters, had left him, and his two sons rebuilt his house themselves to make it more practical for him. Through the years Dubus had grown closer to them, particularly Andre, proud of his fighting—Dubus himself, though a Marine, had never been in a fight—and his writing; at times he was virtually a close pal. His many friends remained loyal to him. A group of writers, including John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Stephen King, John Irving, Richard Ford, Ann Beattie, and Richard Yates, got together and organized a series of readings from their work to help pay his medical expenses. In 1988 he was awarded a MacArthur grant.

Townie is an account not only of Andre’s life, it is also a record of everything his father did not know and had missed as a result of having left the family, a final bonding with and tribute to a father who was errant but hugely influential. Autobiographies have become a very popular form. The first person has been a favored voice for as long as there have been books, and in autobiography it may hold our interest because of whose voice it is, how well known, or because of its own vitality, its a cappella power. There is something of both in Townie. Women do not figure largely in the book. It is a man’s confession, honest and somewhat disturbing, standing alongside other writers’ books about their youth and, often, absent or defective fathers: Frank Conroy’s influential Stop Time, Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, or J.R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar. In autobiography there is only one witness and one account, and it stands.

Andre Dubus III is married now with three children of his own and is a teacher as his father had been. There are inevitable connections to be drawn between father and son, emotional ones, as the book shows so clearly, but as writers they are not the same and the younger has proved more popular. He gives the impression of someone not to be crossed, someone polite enough but who would do the same thing to anyone who messed with his daughter that Tommy J. did to Jeb. Jeb attempted suicide twice, once nearly successfully. Andre never did.

When his father died of a heart attack in February 1999, Andre was in San Francisco promoting his new novel, House of Sand and Fog, which was nominated for the National Book Award and became an Oprah selection. The man at the desk in his hotel said there was a call for him. It was his wife on the phone, crying. “Honey, what?” he said. “What?” His first thought was of his children, something had happened to one of them. His wife couldn’t stop crying. Finally she was able to say, “Your dad—“

They had once sat together talking at length to an interviewer and then drinking and continuing to talk, and Andre had said to himself:

You need to tell him how it was. He still thinks this was just a sport for you. He’ll listen now. Tell him how it was.

He never managed to until now.

He and his brother, Jeb, built the coffin for their father with their own hands, taking all of one night to do it. More than eight hundred people attended the funeral:

his two older sisters from Louisiana, their grown daughters and sons, cousins of his we barely knew. There were writer friends from his time in Iowa City, ex-girlfriends and two ex-wives, Peggy singing “Summertime” up in the balcony. There were hundreds of students from over the years, drinking buddies from Ronnie D’s, retired professors from Bradford, waitresses and bartenders and former cops.

The ground was frozen too hard to bury him and they had to wait until spring. The two brothers and a friend dug the grave. Townie is the great wreath, part beautiful flowers, part still-green leaves, part thorns, bits of cloth, paper, everything Andre wanted to remember laid with toughened hands on the grave.

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