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Dad may be an acclaimed writer at the nearby college – but that doesn't prevent these kids from growing up unwashed and underfed.

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His first transformation is physical. When he is unable to protect his younger brother and mother from a 20-year-old Marine, the teenager starts lifting weights for hours each day, turning himself into a tank who can send a man to the hospital with one punch. He becomes a ferocious brawler, seeking out bullies on whom to slake his fury. Dubus writes about violence with rare candor and insight – both its sources and what it can do to a psyche.

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His dad is proud of Dubus’s toughness and the fact he once fought 11 guys. (Dubus explains that he technically only fought three: the rest ran away.) But Dubus Sr. never understands how much of his son’s rage is directed at him, and the harshness of his children’s life is completely alien to the well-groomed world of college. (His dad played catch with him once when Dubus was a teen. He had no idea what to do with the ball.) They don’t really connect in the way the son craves until the senior Dubus loses the use of his legs after being hit by a car in 1986.

Muscle, Dubus comes to realize, will only get him so far. Even though he becomes a good enough boxer to seriously train for the Golden Gloves, Dubus still can’t protect his family. His younger brother tries to commit suicide. His oldest sister is gang-raped at knifepoint. Their dad becomes obsessed with guns after that, thus spectacularly missing the point.

Unable to talk honestly to his dad about his childhood and becoming increasingly horrified by the realization that he craves the emotional relief fighting gives, Dubus ultimately finds an escape from Haverhill, Mass., through college and a new outlet through writing, which he discovers while working construction and living in a two-room apartment with no furniture, TV, radio, or telephone. (His bed was a yoga mat; his pillow, work boots stuffed inside a pillowcase.) His novels include “House of Sand and Fog,” which was a National Book Award finalist and was made into an Oscar-nominated movie, and “The Garden of Last Days.”

“I had never thought about writing as a field or career. These were not words that came to me. Ever since that night in my apartment in Lynn when – instead of running to the gym to box – I’d sat down with tea and a pen and a notebook, writing had given me me, and this was the only reason I’d kept doing it.”

In “Townie,” Dubus writes with an honesty only equaled by his ability to keep on loving his family. It might be a cliché that great writers make lousy parents but there is nothing clichéd about this book.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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