"Innocence is asking why to brutality. But when innocence is gone, you don't ask why anymore; one merely expects it and either fights it or runs from it or does something in between."
The early chapters of Townie, a new memoir from novelist Andre Dubus III, track the slow erosion of Dubus' innocence during his childhood in the dissolute industrial town of Haverhill, Massachusetts. His parents have divorced, and the child support provided by his now largely absent father is barely enough to keep the family fed. Drugs are everywhere, and worst of all is the constant threat of schoolyard violence. "Sometimes I'd get shoved and kicked and pushed to the ground," he writes. "I was still trying to figure out what I'd done to make them mad, I had not yet learned that cruelty was cruelty and you don't ask why, just hit first and hit hard."
After failing to protect his little brother during a fight—and hearing his mother called a whore in her own home—Dubus decides that instead of running from brutality, he's going to fight it. With relentless training (and whole lot of tuna and hard-boiled eggs), Dubus molds his body and his mind into something capable of such a battle. For most of his teens and early 20s, his life is defined by his muscles: developing them, maintaining them, using them to punch deserving assholes in the face. "Everyone's body is surrounded by an invisible membrane you have to puncture to get to them," he observes. Once he learns to puncture that membrane—to throw the first punch—fighting becomes an instinctive response to anyone who violates his sense of justice, whether by hitting a woman or wronging one of his friends or family members.
As Dubus grows older and tougher, contrasts sharpen between him and his father—a well-regarded writer and college professor who struggles to make ends meet, but nonetheless lives a life free of day-to-day violence. There's a sense that if his father had been more present, Andre wouldn't have had to Hulk out in order to protect his family—but alongside that blame is the growing realization that it is through writing that Andre himself might find a different way of approaching the world.
Townie is structured chronologically, but Dubus frequently intercuts its forward motion with detours—skipping back to fill in gaps, or revealing glimpses of the future, letting us know which characters are now dead, which characters were stabbed to death, which characters became junkies and died of AIDS. If he takes any liberties, it's in applying his novelist's toolbox to the events of his own life: Retrospect and an impulse toward thematic coherence impose a sense of order that can occasionally feel forced. It's easy to set aside this concern, though, and to read Townie as Dubus' own attempt to mine his life for meaning—to allow for progress, to integrate the lessons he's learned and the ways he's changed. It helps, too, that his insight is both poetic and pointed: His violent tendencies, for example, rooted as they are in a childhood defined by physical and financial insecurity, come from the impulse to "turn a wound into a wounding." Dubus learns two lessons in Townie, both equally vital to his survival: He learns how to fight, and he learns how to stop fighting.