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The Writer's Life: Andre Dubus III as his own man

An author once confused with his writer father returns stirringly — and revealingly — to the story of his youth in the memoir 'Townie.'

April 03, 2011|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic

Dubus' willingness to share his shame and brutality is a key to "Townie," which is uncommonly revealing about both. But even more, it allows him to focus the same sharp lens on his family — writing about his older sister's rape, which catalyzed a sense of anger and paranoia (afterward, his father started carrying handguns), or his younger brother's suicide attempts.

No one is more scrutinized here than the elder Dubus, who died in 1999. He is both an absence and a presence, a spectral figure in his children's childhood and later a drinking buddy, a compatriot, once they reach a certain age. This makes for a vivid tension, with Dubus seeking his approval as he reminds us that "[w]hen trouble came, our father just was not the man we'd ever turned to." Now, he says, "I don't think I could have written this if he was alive. It's the primal loyalty, and the last thing I want to do is to betray my parents."

At the same time, he feels obligated to tell it like it was.

"I learned a lot about myself in writing this," he continues. "How could I not have felt fatherless with him out of the picture so much of the time?" And yet, one can't help thinking, his father would have understood his son's need to tell the story. Indeed, in the acknowledgements, Dubus quotes him: "Don't wait till your mama and I are dead before you write about us, son. Just go ahead and write." It's a bittersweet statement that resonates.

"Writing this," Dubus explains, "was cathartic — in a sideways way, by accident — because it has always hurt my feelings, the assumption that things were somehow easier for me because I was his son. It's hard to endure that illusion, when in many ways I wasn't fathered. So maybe this is a severing, after all."

david.ulin@latimes.com

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