Dubus III, Andre
|Genre||Memoir (387 pp.)|
|Keywords||Abandonment, Acculturation, Children, Communication, Cross-Cultural Issues, Depression, Empathy, Family Relationships, Father-Son Relationship, Grief, Human Worth, Men's Health, Narrative as Method, Pain, Poverty, Power Relations, Scapegoating, Society, Suffering, Suicide, Survival, Trauma, Urban Violence|
|Summary|| This memoir spins out in detail the despair and violence that emerges from a childhood of poverty and parental absence. When Dubus was preadolescent, his writer father of the same name (see Andre Dubus), took up with a student of his, and the parents divorced. Andre's mother became a social worker, working full-time with no support system, exhausted. Although Andre's father lived nearby and paid child support, it was never enough to keep the four children and their mother out of poverty. They moved frequently, always to the rough sections of depressed Massachusetts towns on or near the Merrimack River. The memoir describes vividly the smells of the polluted river; garbage strewn lawns; smoky, raucous bars; afternoons and evenings spent aimlessly watching television and, in adolescence, neighborhood kids and punks doing drugs and sex in Andre's home - before his mother arrived back from work each evening .|
At school, in bars, and around the neighborhood, kids and adults beat each other up - violence was a constant. Andre was slight and fearful but also drawn to watch the frequent fights. He avoided direct involvement when he could, was beaten up when he couldn't, and loathed himself in either case. He felt like a non-person: "There was the non-feeling that I had no body, that I had no name, no past and no future, that I simply was not. I was not here" (78). Finally, after being unable to help his brother during a fight, Andre resolved to build himself up physically--lifting barbells, bench pressing, and eventually taking boxing lessons.
Now when there was the threat of a fight, he plunged in quickly, inflicting damage. He could defend himself and those he cared about. But always there was the need for vigilance and the need - frequently actualized - to explode in rage. Later, he came to realize that being quick to jump into fights was a way "to get out what was inside him. Like pus from a wound, it was how [I] expressed what had to be expressed" (191). Gradually Andre came to think there might be other ways "to express a wound."
In the second part of the memoir, Dubus writes of how that other way evolved into creative writing. Training for physical prowess had imposed some discipline in his life, which meant being able to concentrate in school, do homework, and read. There were stints in and out of college (eventually he graduated from the University of Texas in Austin), making ends meet as a gas station attendant, construction worker, fast food manager, bartender, and later-- halfway house counselor. At the local Massachusetts college he attended for a while, he overheard himself being called a "townie." He navigated at the interface of the old neighborhood where he still lived and the life of the more privileged. He became more self-aware, more interior, and at the same time, more interested in the larger world. Threaded throughout this period is a developing relationship with his father, whose writing he admired and whose approval he craved.
In spite of the author's ambivalence toward his father - "where were you when I needed you?" (333)--one probably cannot overestimate the role that the senior Dubus played as a writer model for his son. Dubus read and admired his father's stories. He saw the discipline required to write, even though Dubus senior's weekends were often spent unwinding in bars (sometimes with the younger Dubus). Andre met his father's academic colleagues, met other writers, met writers who had stable relationships with a spouse.
He even learned that a writer can be a sports fan (Boston Red Sox), and avid sports participant (jogger). One of the most moving chapters in the book describes the first baseball game Dubus ever attended or watched - at age 13 - (with two tickets from his father), to see the Red Sox play the Yankees in Boston. Dubus went with a friend who explained the game to him as it unfolded. Dubus was stunned: "Every time one of them walked up to home plate with his bat, hundreds of men and boys would yell insults at him I couldn't quite make out, just the tone, which I knew well, but it wasn't directed at me or anyone I would have to try to protect, and I felt relieved of everything, part of something far larger than I was, just one of thousands and thousands of people united in wanting the same thing, for those men from our team to beat the men from the other team, and how strange that they did this by playing, that one beat the other by playing a game" (161-162).
|Commentary|| This is a gripping and disturbing memoir that delineates how deprivation, neglect, and violence generate fear, rage, and more violence. Fight scenes occur often and are described in brutal detail. There is the vicious gang rape of Dubus' sister, and his brother's suicide attempt (at age 13). In this family, there is no parental abuse other than neglect - rather, abuse stems from the larger environment and culture of poverty, distrust, and despair. In some ways, Dubus was lucky - his parents were educated, valued education, and were basically interested in what happened to their children - even though they had little time to spend with them (mother) or were preoccupied with their own personal needs and second families (father).|
The evolution of a writer is another major theme of the memoir. Those interested in writing and in how writers develop will likely find this book important. Dubus is very clear on how his writing was essential for a sense of self, for his engagement with the world around him, and for his increasing ability to put himself in another's place - the latter helping him to turn away from violence.
Also central to the book is the author's ambivalent relationship with his father. Dubus skillfully develops the change over time and circumstance in his understanding of the father and their relationship. Those who know the senior Dubus' work and are aware of the crippling accident that changed his later life will be interested particularly in the memoir's final chapters, which can be linked with the father's own work written after the accident (see annotations of Meditations from a Movable Chair and Dancing After Hours).
The book is long so would lend itself best to classes where there is time for extended reading or research projects. Sections could, however be selected to consider the issues that Dubus grapples with and that demonstrate his skillful writing techniques.
|Publisher||W. W. Norton|
|Place Published||New York|
|Annotated by||Aull, Felice|
|Date of Entry||10/12/11|