GMPM columnist Andrew Ladd meets up with author Andre Dubus III to talk about violence, empathy, and Dubus’ new book, Townie: A Memoir.
Friday afternoon, Newburyport, Massachusetts. I’m standing at a supermarket checkout line holding a foil Happy Birthday balloon twice the size of my head, while next to me National Book Award nominee Andre Dubus III scans the contents page of the women’s magazine More. “I think this is it, I think I’m in this one,” he says, tapping the page with his finger. “They asked me to write something about a strong woman in my life, so I chose my wife. I didn’t tell her I was doing it—I wanted to surprise her.”
He squints and brings the magazine right up to his face for a second, then turns to me. “This is what happens when you turn 40, man. Your eyes lose their elasticity. You can’t focus on anything.”
It’s early April, a typical New England spring day: warm, but overcast with thin clouds, like a sheet of muslin in front of the sun. I’d taken the train to Newburyport, where Dubus lives with his wife and three kids, so he could show me around—but when he picked me up at the station he said we’d also have to run a few errands, to get last minute party supplies for his son’s fourteenth birthday: “A balloon and some shit at Shaw’s. And we have a great organic farm nearby where I’m going to get meat.” He didn’t buy More in the end, though; his article wasn’t in it.
Dubus (it’s pronounced dub-YOOSE) has the slicked back hair and cowboy swagger of Johnny Cash, and the salty Massachusetts warmth caricatured in so many recent movies about Boston. (He enjoyed The Town and loved The Fighter, and says he’s been gratified to see that part of the culture getting attention after decades of “this strange idea of New England just being full of Brahmins and Yankees.”) He grew up himself around the blue-collar towns north of Boston—including Newburyport, for a while—the oldest boy of four siblings and the presumptive man of the house after his father, the other writer Andre Dubus, left to pursue another woman.
When that happened Dubus the younger, who was a scrawny 10-year-old at the time—47 pounds, he says—immediately developed the conviction that it was up to him to protect his family. That led him first to a weight bench in his basement, then to a boxing gym, a string of increasingly brutal bar fights, and on several occasions the drunk tank, and finally, indirectly, to university in Texas, a job at a halfway house in Colorado, and back to Massachusetts and a family of his own.
That, anyway, is the basic outline of his new book Townie: A Memoir, a thoughtful, gripping book that details how violence came to consume his life and his mind—and his struggles to escape it again. It’s a book he’s unsuccessfully tried to write three or four times over the last 25 years, and he says the violence angle—rather than just his difficult childhood, or his other family traumas, or his uneven relationship with his famous father—was always one of his main inspirations. “I felt as if, you know, ‘this is a valuable thing to communicate to people,’” he says, “And I’ve heard from a lot of men—I’ve had more male responses than I’ve gotten for a book before—thanking me because they were in the same place. I got a fucking email from a police officer, who finished the book crying in his patrol car, telling me all about the violence that has shaped his life and made him a cop. That just made me so grateful.”
As we talk I get the sense he was almost relieved, too, to have so many men identify with the story; he says he was worried about writing something that came off as a whiny, privileged “me-moir.” But as we talk I also wonder if there was more to his anxiety than just how people might receive the book: he clearly has an acute awareness of the transition he’s made from his townie upbringing to the upper-middle-class life of a bestselling novelist, and at times he seems uncomfortable with the contrast—with the strange in-between he’s ended up in. So perhaps it was a desire to reaffirm his roots, or to tie his two lives together, that drove him to seek out the deeper kernel of his violent past—something that could help the two sides understand each other better. Perhaps, on some level, he felt there was something valuable in doing that, too.
The first place Dubus takes me is a friend’s house. “You gotta see this thing,” he says, as we pull out of the train station in his dark green Tundra. “She has this great aerial photograph of downtown the way it looked in the early ’70s”—the years when Dubus lived there as a kid—“and it’s wild! You won’t believe it’s the same place. I’ve been bringing journalists here all week.”
Indeed, when we get there, the faded 8×10 is remarkable, showing a dozen or so low-rise brick buildings in disrepair that look more like a dystopian steampunk movie set than the clutch of boutiques and coffee shops that make up modern-day Newburyport. Dubus points out a building whose roof is partially gone and whose footprint is filled with rubble—now, he says, a Starbucks. He and his friend share a look, and laugh.
And then we’re off again, on a whistlestop driving tour of town that finishes up on Lime Street, outside one of Dubus’s early homes. When he lived there it was a run-down clapboard with no front yard—barely even a sidewalk—that drunks would wander into off the street; instead of a lawn out back was an enclosed square of dirt, which he would occasionally rake into straight lines to try and harness some sense of order.
Now the building is painted a handsome shade of baby blue, with a maroon front door and brass numbers screwed into the frame. (If you happen to have the hardback version of Townie, it’s about the same color palette as the cloth cover.) It fits in nicely with the quiet, genteel street Lime has become, the other houses painted in cotton-candy colors too, and the air filled with the sound of kids playing.
Dubus explains all this to me in a quiet, contemplative tone. Later he tells me that, while he’d been trying out the Iron John movement a few years ago—“Six of us would sit around a fire every other Monday, no alcohol, no sports, just men talking”—a friend of his told him he was full of shit for complaining about his upbringing. “So I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘You’re always talking about how hard it was, dah-dah-dah, your town, the milltown, the violence—but there’s always so much love in your voice.’ And I think what he heard was: I’m grateful to the hardship. It allowed me to develop into a man with traits that are hard-earned, and that I’m proud of—like the ability to be in a confrontation. Like taking the direction into trouble and not away from it.” His voice grows a little quieter, here, his eyes narrowing as he stares out the window. “There’s a great prayer by Solzhenitsyn: he says, ‘God, I always remember to thank you for the roses, but I forget to thank you for the thorns.’”
He pauses, head nodding, almost unconsciously. “Thank you for the thorns.”
Dubus’s childhood home behind us, he points the Tundra towards his pride and joy: his current home, a grand, picturesque house that he built and designed with his brother using the proceeds from House of Sand and Fog. (A book, he notes wryly, about a woman losing her house.)
It sits at the end of a short, unpaved driveway, in a quiet spinney off a back road, and there’s a boundless, happy energy about Dubus as he gives me the tour: the beautiful open plan first floor—a kitchen and a dining room, and a living room with a giant stone fireplace—and the granny flat for his mother-in-law, complete with sunken patio and covered porch.
Last he shows me his writing room, a tiny, galley-shaped study containing a couch—it stops the door from opening more than halfway—and a plain desk on which sits a Macbook connected to a set of giant headphones. The room is built into the upper corner of his basement, like a spider’s nest, so that you have to go down one flight of stairs and then up another—past a full box of Sand and Fog copies—and can barely stand up straight when you get there. “It’s totally soundproof,” he says, and tells a story about a recent Saturday morning when, between his wife and three kids and their various friends, there were 23 people upstairs and he’d had no idea.
It feels like that kind of house, too, not just a building but a home, a place exhaustively lived in, always waiting for the next crowd to arrive. In most ways it feels like any safe, inviting piece of suburbia; Dubus calls it “tony”. “But I check my doors twice a night to make sure they’re all locked,” he adds, as we leave. “I have a bat beside my bed.” He says he still feels a little weird sometimes at living so comfortably after what he grew up with; I tell him that seems understandable.
“Does it?” he says, holding the door open for me. “Good.”
As I walk out I pass another pile of baseball bats.
“It’s hard to believe you’re only an hour from Boston here,” I say, once we’re back on the road, a quiet two-lane stretch in a gully of trees. “It’s like a different world.”
He smiles warmly. “Yeah, isn’t it cool? And you know, I’m still only a mile and a half from a good beer or a cup of coffee.” From the corner of his eye he glances at me. “Speaking of, you want some coffee? I gotta get a little somethin’ something’.”
I say sure and we discuss the relative merits of Starbucks versus Dunkin’ Donuts for a moment—we decide on Dunkin’—and then begin to chat about his background. I ask about something he says in Townie: that writing gave him a new sense of empathy that helped him, ultimately, to control his violent urges.
He nods vigorously. “It really did. And I don’t want to suggest for a second that writers are more empathetic than other people, because, you know, writers can be big assholes like anybody else. But for me that daily act of writing character-driven fiction—where you’re asking “What’s it like to be you?” of another human being—is a humble and peaceful act, and entirely non-judgmental. And writing kind of kept me in that state. It began to change my vision of people. So it was no longer possible for me to see some snarly bastard in a bar at night and think of him as a prick who needed his face punched. I just kept thinking about his day, and what got him to this moment.” That curiosity about others’ lives is evident when you talk to Dubus, too; the hardest thing about interviewing him is that he keeps trying to interview you instead.
We approach a rotary, the Dunkin’ Donuts we’re heading toward visible on the other side, and I ask him why he thought writing did more to help him understand others than his degree in sociology, another discipline concerned with asking “What’s it like to be you?”
He rubs his jaw as we enter the rotary. “Well, it’s interesting you say that. I really feel sociology helped me mostly by not being an English major, because—this guy’s not gonna fuckin’ yield, idiot—I met so many English majors who, when they became writers, were too intimidated by all the greats they’d read. And I was ignorant, and it helped me.” We get into the Dunkin’ Donuts drive thru lane. “So, what’s it going to be?”
I tell him my order and he repeats it to the speaker, and then we pull around to the window arguing over who’s going to pay—but he insists we’re in his town, and in any case he’s the one by the window.
“And how are you today?” he asks, beaming, as he hands over his money to the shy teenage attendant. She says she’s good, then counts the money and tells him he gave her an extra dollar.
“That’s for you,” he says, and though I can’t see his face I’m sure he must have winked. She thanks him, flustered, and hands over two cups.
“So, yeah, sociology,” he continues, turning back to me as if we’d been talking the whole time. “It gets your head out of your ass, you know?” As we enter the rotary again he sticks a straw into his iced coffee—“Let me just make sure they didn’t put any sugar in, that would really ruin my moment”—and then tears up the paper wrapper and tosses it into the back seat.
“But my head was not in my ass in the way that a lot of young people’s head can be. I had a big, huge social conscience, and I was really tortured by the suffering of the world, all these horrible things I was reading about, especially American behavior … And I was just in such a state of despair, and rage, and then combined with all these white, elitist, conservative frat boys. I detested them so much. And I remember at commencement thinking I’m going to take a year off, I’m going to work with the proletariat—you know, a little romanticized, which is weird because I grew up around blue-collar people—and then I’m going to get that Ph.D. in Marxist social science, and then I’m going to go to law school, and then I’m going to be a politician. And then I’ll probably run for president, and I’ll change the world from the top down. I actually had that thought.
“But almost immediately once I began to write, I felt such a cosmic shift in my focus, and I became from then on much more of a witness, as opposed to a participant. I just want to write it all down. I just want to try and capture it. I’m sure you’re in the same boat.”
I shrug and tell him I’m probably still a little closer to the changing the world side of things.
“Good!” he says. “But once your testosterone level goes down, and your energy level goes down, you’ll get there.” He pauses, and then, with a twinkle in his eye, adds: “Not that mine’s gone down one notch!”
I tell him I’ll be sure to put that in my article.
We go to Shaw’s, next, and then the organic farm he was telling me about, and then he takes me back to the train station. The muslin sky has puckered and bunched up in a few places now, leaving streaks of blue between darker clouds that look ready to rain.
We’ve been talking a lot about his father, who, in one scene in Townie, almost starts a bar brawl with a group of bikers over a swastika one of them has tattooed on his arm—a situation the younger Dubus ends up having to defuse.
“He was actually very naïve about street stuff,” he tells me, “and I felt a little uncomfortable writing that, because it felt close to disloyalty or dishonouring the father. But I was proud of his bravery, and in a lot of ways I’m grateful for what I had with him—there was a certain carousing closeness we had that a lot of guys don’t get with their fathers. And even though it wasn’t really appropriate, and he wasn’t fatherly—because he was, frankly, immature—I’m grateful for that time, you know? It was better than nothing.”
Since we’re back on violence, though, and his transition from fight-seeker to fight-avoider, I ask him one last question: does he think he could have gotten to this point—his newfound distaste for violence—without having the years of brawling first?
“No,” he says, after a moment’s thought. “No no no. You know, you can tell you’re writing a story well when it feels like it could only have gone the way it does—there’s only one true way for this character to get to that end. And I don’t think I could have been here without where I went, and I feel—by the way—so fortunate it went that way.”
We’re pulling up to the station, now, and I can see my train at the platform getting ready to leave. “So what about your sons?” I say. “Would you want them to have that fighting experience too?”
“Oh, no,” he says, and this seems to be the one place where he has no qualms about how comfortable his life’s become. “I hope they’re never in a fight.”
I crack the door open. “Even though it means they’ll never understand violence as well as you do?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Fuck yeah. Because you know what?” He laughs. “If they want to understand it, they can read my book.”