Early in his new memoir, Townie, Andre Dubus III recalls watching a local bully beat up his younger brother in front of their Haverhill, Mass., home. It's the mid-1970s, and Dubus, his mother and siblings have lived in a succession of low-rent houses in neighborhoods hit hard by poverty and crime. He is young, shy and meek, but he has also recently seen Billy Jack, the 1971 cult revenge movie. As his mother tends to her son's wounds, Dubus looks at himself in the mirror, "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 will never allow you not to fight back ever again. You hear me?"
It's a key moment. Dubus, tired of being victimized, commits to retaliation — and in the process, he gives himself over to an intense rage that will eventually threaten to ruin his life. He works out with weights, takes boxing lessons and, not long after, sends a bully to the hospital with a vicious punch to the face. It's his first real act of violence; it won't be his last. Townie follows Dubus through his childhood and young adulthood, as he tries to come to terms with his own inchoate but deepening anger, and desperately attempts to establish a relationship with his father, the legendary short-story writer Andre Dubus.
The elder Dubus is loving but distant, having left his family years before to move in with the first of a string of new girlfriends. He and his son begin to bond, first over athletics, then over their shared desire for revenge. After the elder Dubus' daughter is brutally gang-raped in Boston, his son's anger reaches a boiling point — and he becomes obsessed with handguns, at one point firing a .380 semiautomatic pistol at a paper target, pretending it's a rapist. (The elder Dubus would later write the short story "Killings," about a man who takes the life of his son's murderer; the story was adapted into the landmark 2001 film In the Bedroom.)
Dubus III, author of the critically acclaimed novel House of Sand and Fog, relates the story of his childhood and young adulthood with an immediate, raw intensity — it's at times difficult to read, but it's almost impossible to turn away. His prose is unaffected in the best way possible; there's never a hint of preciousness or pretentiousness. And his depictions of the northeastern Massachusetts of the '70s are stark and evocative; like his father, Dubus III is a master of setting.
What's most remarkable about Townie, though, is the author's unalloyed emotional honesty. He confronts, with an almost painful candor, the young man he was, and the sometimes awful decisions he made. As a memoir, and as a family story, Townie is beautiful and almost perfectly executed. As a meditation on violence, from an author who once embraced it, it is shocking, necessary and indispensable.