- A Maelstrom of Discontent
Andre Dubus III is the son of the late Andre Dubus, a short-story writer of some distinction whose reputation continues quietly to grow. The elder Dubus was crippled when he was hit by a car in 1986, and he died of a heart attack, alone in his home, twelve years later. He had taught writing at Bradford College in northern Massachusetts, where he lived with his wife, Pat, and their four children, two boys and two girls, after being graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the mid-sixties.
By the end of the sixties Andre and Pat were divorced, and Andre was living with one of his female students. Cast adrift, Pat and the four Dubus kids began a rocky hand-to-mouth existence that would take them from one run-down former mill town to another along Massachusetts's polluted Merrimack River in what must be as desolate a region of this country as anyone could imagine. Townie is the story of what that existence was like as told by the elder of the two sons, himself already a writer of some note, whose novel The House of Sand and Fog (1999) was an Oprah Winfrey selection and was made into a well-received film.
The relationship between father and abandoned son is at the heart of the story and is the best thing about the book. Andre III is seriously conflicted about his father. He loves him but has trouble admiring him, and he resents strenuously his father's [End Page xlvi] relatively comfortable life in college-provided housing on the Bradford campus while he and his mother, brother, and sisters are struggling just to stay alive in the wretched towns their poverty has forced them into. By the book's end the roles of father and son have been reversed, with Andre III taking care of his handicapped father with a patience and solicitude he might have wished for himself in earlier years.
Another strength of the book is the author's loving portrait of his mother. Patricia Lowe Dubus was a former high-school homecoming queen in Dubus's hometown of Lake Charles, Louisiana, when Andre the elder wooed her away from another suitor and married her. She followed him through his six-year career as a Marine Corps officer, a career that ended when Captain Dubus resigned his commission to enroll at the Iowa workshop. All four of the Dubus children were born on Marine Corps bases.
But the doughty, indomitable Pat of those earlier years seems to have been undone by the divorce that became inevitable once they reached Massachusetts. She takes employment as a social worker, which requires her to commute down to Boston, and in the process she loses control of her family. The children roam wild without her supervision; drugs, alcohol, sex, and violence invade their lives. Wherever they live, the house is a wreck; meals are served out of cans, dirty dishes stack up, grime accumulates, and the tv set becomes the focus of everyone's life. It is in this maelstrom of discontent that the Dubus children measure out their lives until each in turn becomes old enough to leave home. As for Pat, she eventually meets a man who will rescue her from poverty, but not before the damage to her children has been done. By book's end she is tanned, fit, and living with him in Florida.
What drives the narrative of Townie, however, is not the father-son relationship or the loving depiction of the abandoned wife and mother. It is the son's determination, and ensuing project, to transform himself from easy prey to steely predator in order to survive in the places in which he finds himself, places where, he tells us, "Kids roamed the neighborhood like dogs," places where, when his father shows up once a week to take him and his siblings out for a movie and a soft drink, he thinks, "it was like being on furlough from a penal colony."
Because they are small and weak, Andre...