By David Laskin
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 4, 2011; 12:31 PM
By Andre Dubus III
Norton. 387 pp. $25.95
If you've ever been harassed or hurt by a bully, if you've ever dreamed of revenge, if you've ever crossed the line from dreaming to hitting back and felt a rush of relief and joy as you punished your enemy, then you're going to find a lot that resonates and a lot that disturbs the hell out of you in Andre Dubus III's new memoir.
Best known for his 1999 novel, "House of Sand and Fog," Dubus grew up weak and small and poor and cowering in the rough mill towns north of Boston. His father, the much-loved short story writer Andre Dubus II, walked out on a young wife and family to pursue his craft and girlfriends, and from then on the four kids were basically on their own with the thugs, drug dealers and budding sadists that infested Newburyport and Haverhill. One April afternoon Dubus III, on the cusp of adolescence, decides he's had enough. He has just stood by helplessly while a hulking 20-year-old army-trained monster bloodied his brother's face and called his mother a whore. Retreating to the bathroom, he faces himself in the mirror, hates what he sees and vows to change it: "this kid with narrow shoulders and soft arm and chest muscles and no balls. . . . I looked into his eyes: I don't care if you get your face beat in, I don't care if you get kicked in the head or stabbed or even shot, I will never allow you not to fight back ever again. You hear me?"
With fanatical resolve, the kid embarks on a Rocky-like program of weight-training and boxing and bulking up - "methodically teaching myself how to hurt people" - until he feels ready to put his new muscles and nerve to the test. When a bully in a bar insults his kid brother, Dubus clocks the guy and then gets tackled and roughed up. "That was it?" he muses, stunned but proud. "My entire boyhood I'd been unable to talk or move or resist out of fear of that? My head and ears were sore, so what. I wanted to run back up there and try again. I wanted to set my feet and throw one into the big one's face."
Over the next hundred pages he throws plenty. A self-appointed avenger of female honor, Dubus comes out swinging and generally hospitalizes his opponents. Though not without twinges of remorse and self-doubt. "So who was I to do what I did?" he wonders after pulverizing some horny drunk who had the temerity to glance at his buddy's girlfriend's backside. "Didn't I look at women like that all the damn time?"
At some point in his mid-20s Dubus starts to worry that he has "somehow gotten myself wired wrong, that now I was stuck with impulses I could not control, ones that could lead to nothing but deeper and deeper trouble." His salvation comes, of course, from trading his fists for the pen. In a scene that's just a shade too pat, too cinematic, too carefully bookended with the adolescent-mirror moment, Dubus realizes that the secret of writing honestly is to quit studying himself and start inhabiting his characters: "Negative self-scrutiny was just another form of insincerity; I had to disappear altogether." If only writing honestly, whatever that means, were so easy.
"Townie" comes most alive when Dubus writes about his father. Dubus II was clearly a piece of work - charismatic, needy, utterly unreliable, married and divorced three times, revered by fellow writers but never commercially successful, obsessed with guns, driven by demons he did not understand but managed to let loose on the page. In a passage that can't have been easy to write, Dubus III confesses to the "dark joy" he felt at revealing his sister's rape to his father - "the one who should've been here all along, the one who should never have left us in the first place." Forgiveness never comes, but Dubus finds something else that binds him to his old man - a current of shared respect, rivalry, hurt, pride and love that is all the more powerful for never being named.
The dark joy of violence is potent, volatile fuel for movies and stories. When deployed by masters of restraint like Bogie, Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy or Clint Eastwood, it can bring you to your feet. But in a sprawling, humorless memoir like this where the fights have no fated trigger or progression and the characters blur into types and personal revelations come wrapped in pop psychology, the repeated crack of fist on jaw can make you walk away shaking your head.
David Laskin is the author of "The Children's Blizzard" and "The Long Way Home."