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Hit First, Hit Hard’

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Josh Andrus
Andre Dubus III, Haverhill, Massachusetts, 2011

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?”
“Nothing.”
Then he was on our bottom step. He pushed me hard in the chest and kicked my shin. “You want your face rearranged, faggot?”
“No.”
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.”
“Why?”
“‘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.

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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