Andre Dubus III has written a Dickensian memoir in a Mark Wahlberg sort of setting. Townie is the tale of a bullied little boy (eldest son of a Louisiana family in a broken-down Massachusetts mill town) becoming, first, a one-punch knockout street fighter, and later a National Book Award finalist for The House of Sand and Fog. Strangely, beautifully, painfully along the way, he finds himself coming into the same demanding vocation — writing — that had drawn his famous father away from a severely neglected family.
The story unfolds in the 1970s along the Merrimack River, just downstream from the scene of Wahlberg’s almost-Oscar movie, “The Fighter.” We’re in the same rough bars with the same wacko clans, hearing the same bad Boston accents — his friend Cleary says he’s always “hawny in the mawning.” As in Dickens, we are confronting social squalor in the home of the great imperial nation and wondering where the glory went — or where it is hiding in the town, even now.
There’s a lot of wondrously authentic energy in Andre Dubus’s voice, on the page and in our conversation. I remarked to him: Townie reads like David Copperfield, with heaps of crystal meth, junk TV, Fritos and Vietnam thrown in. He’s speaking here about his own memory of metamorphosis, as the crysalis of the thug breaks and the artist starts to spread his wings:
It’s something that was semi-conscious, this thought of the membrane in my life, and then became more clarified as I began to describe it in this book. … One thing that I realized, I would see people that weren’t experienced fighters, and they would do this shoving match thing: “Oh yeah? Oh yeah?” Experienced fighters don’t do any foreplay; once they know it’s a fight situation they pound you in the face as hard as they can. … Once you learn how do it, that psychological hymen in you is always broken. You can always do it. Once you break through it you’ll know how to do it and you’ll keep doing it. And that’s the barrier; once you learn to cross that you can fight.
But to the writing: I had a very interesting, strange experience when I first began to write. It felt so familiar, and I couldn’t quite place what it was. But it was another kind of membrane, where I was allowing myself to seep into the being, into the private skin of another, an imaginary other. I had to somehow disappear to become them, in the same way as a fighter. I had to let my fear of my safety disappear and my sense of myself disappear.
Andre Dubus III in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, March 1, 2011.