I’m at the point in Andre Dubus III’s memoir Townie when he describes that moment in his life when he had his first very vivid realization he wanted to write. No, wait, that’s not what he says. He says, he didn’t want to write, he had to write.
In this part of his remembering, he has this girlfriend – one of his father’s writing students. He is losing her to another man, but he’s not all that certain he cares. He stops by her dorm room. She not there, but a story by the other man sits on her desk. He reads it and is carried away by the power of the story. He notices its precise language, specific details, as well as the emotion created by the text, the empathy he feels.
It is an awakening. Partly because the character in this other man’s story is similar to himself: the diner busboy-dishwasher, for example, Dubus had been one. But it wasn’t only that. It was that the story illustrated a moment of consciousness of conscience that Dubus had been encountering in his own life. Not just the awareness of the wrongs in the world which he’d been witnessing and going through since childhood, but the awareness that writing about these wrongs might carry weight and power.
Dubus describes a drive down the highway through a forest and how, after reading this story from his would-be rival, he finally sees trees as they really are: each one different and separate rather than an unrelenting mass of green. That same day, instead of meeting a friend for their usual workout, he sits down and writes a story.
What’s interesting to me is that Dubus’s father was Andre Dubus II, a man who wrote short stories and taught writing most of his life, a published, well-respected author. Children often follow in the footsteps of the parents, doctors have children who become doctors, lawyers have children who go into law, teachers beget teachers and so on. But Andre Three grew up learning to deal with his problems with his fist. Often picked on as a kid, his solution was to make himself as strong and formidable as he could through weight-lifting and boxing. His world-view was one of danger, conflict, injustice, and literally beating an aggressor to the punch. He didn’t understand that words, too, could change how people think and behave and can do so on a much larger stage than what the towns along the Merrimac River represent.
I came to Andre Dubus III through his novel House of Sand and Fog. Since most of the reading I do these days must include CDs and earphones, this book just happened to be on the library’s “What’s New” shelf. I found it a revelation, how Dubus could bring his two antagonists so close to recognizing each other as real human beings – and thereby bring them to an understanding – and then how he snatches that opportunity from them. This novel illustrates how underneath we are all human with human needs, and how our anger and prejudice keep us from recognizing ourselves in others.
Dubus’s memoir not only reveals his first awareness of his need to write, but his source material. As with most writers who draw from their own emotions, his stories are rooted in his own life, and reading Townie is like rereading and treasuring HOSAF all over again as well as The Garden of Last Days, and the stories in Dirty Love.
Reawakening to life and its many details, including the complex contradictions in our humanity, is what hooks so many writers. To write is to see the world in high relief and to relive it through the lives of the people we create. This lesson is never more clear than it is in Townie.