It was early September at a college in upstate New York. The maples in the quad were still in full bloom, and the grass was clipped and dozens of young men and women walked along the paved pathways, carrying books and backpacks, a cell phone in one hand, their iPod in the other, many of them with an earbud in one ear so they heard music on that side of their head while they carried on conversations on the other. I was there to give a talk to the entire incoming freshman class, all of whom had been sent a copy of my memoir, Townie. By nightfall it had begun to rain, and I'd just eaten dinner in a room of raised panels and deep carpet with twenty or so members of the faculty. Many carried umbrellas as we hurried across campus to the hall where I would give my talk.
Like many published writers, I give a lot of talks. Sometimes to crowds, sometimes to small groups. Sometimes I'm nervous beforehand, other times I'm not. Tonight, I was nervous. Over five hundred eighteen-year-olds had just read all about my youth, and now I was expected to say something important to these young people, something that might inspire them as they began their first tentative steps into their college years. I was anticipating the kinds of students I often [End Page 41] encounter on campuses across the country, a baseball-cap wearing, gadget-addicted mix of earnestness and glazed distraction, of intense desire for something real and helpful and a standoffish world-weariness that comes not from the world itself but from far too many cyber-simulations of it. Whenever I'm in their presence, I feel a deep need to give them something worth showing up for, a story or a quote or a line of thought and feeling that comes from years of trying and failing and trying again to write truly about human beings—in this case, myself.
But when we village elders stepped into the cavernous hall, nearly every seat taken by a young man or woman from various parts of the country, some from other parts of the world, something strange happened. We started walking down the aisle and I heard, "Hey, that's him." "Lookit, there he is." And then came applause, loud and sustained, then a few kids were standing up, and the applause grew louder. What was this? I kept moving to the front, but I was glancing around at these young faces. In so many of them was an expression of acknowledgment and recognition, many of them peering around others to get a closer look at me. And then it became clear what was happening; they weren't clapping for the middle-aged author of a book they'd been required to read; they were clapping for the boy and violent young man I'd been; they were clapping for the kid who'd grown into the man walking up to the stage to greet them; they were clapping not for Andre, the writer, but for Andre, the main character in a story called Townie. I may as well have been Jake Barnes or Harry Potter or Captain Queeg. And as I waited to be introduced, I stood there feeling as if I'd lied to them in some way, that I had somehow misrepresented myself. But had I? Yes. And no. Not at all.
In my hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts, the mill town where I grew up and the setting for Townie, I'm told it's referred to as "The Book."
"Hey, have you read The Book?"
"You shittin' me? I'm in The fucking Book."
Just weeks after it was published, I was to give a reading at the Haverhill Public Library. Over five hundred people showed up. The [End Page 42] librarian introduced me, and there was enthusiastic applause, a few raucous whoops and shouts from the rear of the room. I looked out over the crowd and took them in. Many were my age, in their...