Townie is a memoir written by the author of House of Sand and Fog, among other fine novels. It portrays the journey of one young man’s descent into a personal hell, and his inspiring climb back out again. Written in novelesque fashion, it reminded me of nothing so much as a non-fiction version of some of Dennis Lehane’s poignant novels set in a south end of Boston dominated by alcohol, drugs, crime and violence. Dubus spent his impoverished childhood in the seventies moving with his divorced mom and three siblings from one dying New England mill town to the next, staying one step ahead of eviction, often going hungry and being bullied and beaten up everywhere he went. Endless television and hiding out became his and his siblings’ lives for years, their mother’s occasional magical optimism and their professor/writer father’s weekly fly-through visits their only relief from the grimness.
The constant humiliation of being a perpetual victim eroded Dubus’ soul, and at one point, as he puts it, he “broke through the membrane” of social conscience that prevents most people from using violence against another. In his teens, he began a punishing, obsessive routine to build up his body and learn to fight, and then he began to wreak revenge, looking for any and all slights—real or imagined, against himself or against another–to beat perceived bullies to a pulp, and coming near to killing several of them. One sister became a drug dealer, while his brother and youngest sister did their best to hide from their lives in their rooms. His life becomes a schizophrenic one of insightful observations on one level but a totally inability to rein in or overcome his insane fury on the other.
Dubus’ discovery of writing as a way to channel himself into something both healing and creative is a slow process, as is his shedding of the animal rage that continues to drive him. It also eventually enables him to build a relationship with his quirky father around forgiveness and a shared love of the written word. Dubus’ life is painfully depicted, beautifully rendered, and a universal warning to the rest of us that our inherent humanity is not something necessarily handed to us, but needs to be strived for and won, sometimes over and over again.