It’s almost a given: If you have a famous parent, you’ve got the material for at least one memoir about the hurts inflicted by self-absorbed, brilliant people who neglect their offspring in pursuit of their art.
Auberon Waugh’s memoir “Will This Do?” might mark the pinnacle of astounding parental selfishness – specifically, the banana scene. During the food shortages after World War II, all British children were given one banana. The young Waughs had never tasted the exotic treat. Evelyn Waugh proceeded to pour sugar and cream on all three of his children’s bananas and eat every bite in front of them while his adoring wife looked on.
Still, at least Waugh fed and housed his kids. When acclaimed short story writer Andre Dubus II left his wife and children for one of his college students, his son Andre Dubus III writes in his amazing new memoir, Townie, the four Dubus kids went from a rural life with a mom who took pride in her home-cooked meals to a shaky existence in a series of squalid homes in Massachusetts mill towns.
Their dad, Dubus writes, did not make a lot as a professor. He did pay child support and take the kids out to dinner on Sundays. But he remained oblivious to the poverty and violence his children were steeping in. (The kids put on a front, not wanting to betray their exhausted social worker mom, but you’d think anyone even half-observant would have noticed the decrepit homes, dirt yard, and the fact that the children always showed up in the same clothes.)
This isn’t folksy lower-middle-class life, à la the town vs. gown rivalry in “Breaking Away.” Dubus and his three brothers and sisters were constantly hungry. Once a neighborhood friend “opened the fridge and saw its bright empty shelves and said, ‘What happened to the food?’ ” Dubus writes. “It’s something we’d all gotten used to, that hollowness in the veins, the nagging feel there always was just a bit too much air behind your ribs.”
They had one pair of shoes each. When Dubus’s dad invites him to go running with him in the opening scene of “Townie,” he nearly pulps his feet by cramming them into his sister’s tennis shoes since he didn’t have any of his own. (This same sister, at one point, buys food for the family by selling drugs.) While their mother was at work in Boston, her kids experimented with drugs, alcohol, and sex while random teenagers used her living room as a drug den. Her children sometimes made it to school and sometimes didn’t. Dubus was beaten up on a daily basis.
If “Townie” were just about escaping poverty in 1970s and ‘80s Massachusetts, it would still be memorable. But what places it at the top of the heap with memoirs like Mary Karr’s “Liar’s Club” is its unflinching openness and the metamorphoses Dubus effects in his own life.
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.
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.