Andre Dubus III grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, and “townie” was the insulting nickname whispered by college students when he tried to participate in the mainstream. His autobiography, Townie, is a personal exploration of how he was able to rid himself of destructive emotional responses from his adolescence while honestly embracing the foundations of his own life.
Andre had potentially good parents who neglected their children through emotional laziness, cold despair, and near-addiction to drinking. His father was a college professor and well-known writer. His mother was a social worker who helped other people’s kids improve their lot. Meanwhile her own children grew up without a proper home (meals, bedtimes, supervision) and estranged from their father.
Frustrated with his self-image as a skinny weak boy, Andre turned to self-taught body-building. Clearly a success for the first time with his training, he added boxing skills. As his abilities blossomed, he conquered his weak-boy inner self by beating up those who had beaten him, and then those who threatened to beat him, and gradually those who might beat him or others. His salvation probably was that he wanted to keep his body healthy enough to fight, thus drugs and weapons were no attraction to him.
Obviously bright, Andre did get into the college where his father taught. But his father liked the violent side of this son, plus he treated him more like a drinking buddy, having long forfeited his right to give fatherly advice. After a couple of years, Andre quits college because he cannot see the point. Through his twenties, Andre’s search for a “point”, combined with his interest in philosophy and the arts, keeps him moving away from the violence of his hometown. Better than any textbook, his introspection shows why it is so difficult to avoid relapsing into familiar behaviours - why he cannot flee psychological triggers just by changing environments.
Now Andre Dubus III is a respected author in his own right. (His novel, House of Sand and Fog was made into a movie and was a selection in Oprah’s Book Club.) The scenes in Townie are vivid - full of action, tension, smells, and sounds. For those of us never driven by violence, this is a lesson in its awful attraction.