A separate peace
Abandoned by his father to a childhood of poverty, Andre Dubus III traces his path from street thug, to writer, and finally to a wrenching redemption
Andre Dubus III is something of a household name when it comes to books: His novel “House of Sand and Fog’’ was an Oprah Book Club pick, a finalist for the National Book Award, and made into a movie. He’s also the son of one of America’s most respected short-story authors, the late Andre Dubus, whose most ardent admirers were writers themselves. And so one might expect a memoir by the son would be a tale of how the art of the story got handed down generation to generation. But “Townie’’ turns out to be not a book about literary legacy. Rather, this harrowing and strange and beautiful book is one of paternal absence, of spiritual hollowness, of exacting strife and blatant violence and, finally, of a hard-wrought and grace-filled redemption.
Dubus’s father left his wife and four children when Andre, his oldest son, was 10. What followed for the family were years of living at a desperate and poverty-stricken remove from the prominent dad, who worked at and resided in a toney campus across town. The ivied walls of Bradford College are a seeming force field through which the son, his siblings, and mother rarely pass, living instead in Haverhill proper, a miserable mill town thick with crime and drugs and a kind of freewheeling violence that calls for its citizens either to fall victim or join in.
Dubus chooses the latter, but for good reason: He wants to right any and all humiliations his family and friends endure in this town, and to do so with his fists. He wants, it soon becomes apparent, to be his family’s guardian, an angel of death meant to mete out justice one mouthful of teeth down the throat at a time.
“He was falling, not backwards, but straight down,” Dubus writes of his first foray into beating the crap out of someone, in this case a fellow named Lynch who’d pushed his little brother down the stairwell behind a dive bar.
“I was swinging and swinging but the bouncer’s arm was in the air between us and I was trying to punch over it, my fist just missing Lynch’s face which was bone white, his lower face wet and red, his mouth a dark hole though my fist felt nothing . . . and I was half falling, half running down the stairs and out into the cold where my brother waited.”
Much of the early going in the book is given over to Dubus’s single-minded pursuit of the chiseled physique and the administering of the fist to the face. But after a few too many turns with the gratifying rush of stoving in some deserving punk’s ribs with the steel toes of his boots, Dubus begins to connect his actions to his father’s absence. It is, we find, this lack of a father — no matter how beloved a writer he might have been to the literary world — that feeds the poisonous dynamo Dubus becomes on the streets of Haverhill.
“Somewhere, sometime I’d stopped expecting my father to father,” he observes while practicing a knockout punch on a heavy bag in a rundown local gym. Maybe, he goes on, “if he stayed with us, it would have been different, but even then there was the feeling that writing and running and teaching is where he seemed to put the truest part of himself. After those things, there seemed to be little extra energy or time for anything else.”
Later in the book Dubus begins to find the palliative strength of written words placed just so, and the way stories can count in the deeper reaches of the human heart in much more appreciable ways than kicking someone in the chest. “But as I wrote that last line,” he says of his first short story, “my heart was thumping against my sternum and my mouth was dry and I felt pulled along by something larger than I was, something not in me but in this story that had come out of me.”
Yet it isn’t until years later, after he has found his own initial successes as a writer, and after his father loses one leg and the use of the other after getting hit by a car while trying to help stranded motorists on a dark highway, that Dubus encounters perhaps the most important conflict of his life, and the one that leaves him a changed man.
In the most moving and mysterious passage in the book, Dubus writes of a dream he has one night, beside him his wife, Fontaine, the two staying at her cousin’s house in Oxford. In detail and feeling so real he has no choice but to believe the dream a vision, Dubus sees a group of 12 huge men with Marine haircuts and wearing suits and ties, with them an older black man holding a Bible. “You’re gonna die,” the black man yells at him, waking Dubus to the sudden conviction of his own imminent demise.
“With a sick dread opening up in my abdomen and chest,” he writes, “I knew I would probably die today or maybe the next and it would have to be violent, wouldn’t it? Isn’t that what the black preacher’s eyes were telling me? That violence begets violence, no matter who you claim you’re defending or protecting?” That conviction and his intuited understanding of just how he will die leads to a moment when he encounters the Gospel of Matthew, the only thing in the room he can find to read, the only words his eyes can focus on the ones that cut deepest in his soul: “Love one another.”
That newfound love for others is promptly put to the most fearsome of tests, and though I won’t spoil the scene for its sheer terror and awesome grace, suffice it to say that without the conviction he’d be dying soon, Dubus would not have made it out alive. Nor would he have protected those he loved the best way one can: with love.
This book marks an important moment in the growing body of Dubus’s work. Here he reconciles as intimately and exactingly as possible the troubled — and ultimately redeemed — relationship he had with his father. And here he moves into the fatherless life of the mature artist, the one staking his claim to his own world of art in words. It is a redemptive world, one filled with a deep understanding of the power of violence, but invested in the astounding power of love.
Bret Lott’s 13th book, the novel “Dead Low Tide,’’ will be out from Random House in 2012. He teaches at the College of Charleston. and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.