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Originally published Thursday, March 10, 2011 at 7:01 PM

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Book review

'Townie': Andre Dubus III's memoir of growing up literate and tough

Andre Dubus III's memoir "Townie" is the author's story of growing up in an exceedingly literate household, landing in a rough neighborhood when his parents separated and eventually coming to terms with the use and abuse of violence. Dubus will discuss his book Tuesday at Seattle's University Book Store.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Andre Dubus III

The author of "Townie" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle's University Book Store.; free (206-634-3400 or

I'm burned out on memoirs. Increasingly I share Tom Robbins' opinion, "People write memoirs because they lack the imagination to make things up."

Andre Dubus III, the son of the well-respected writer whose name he shares, clearly does have the imagination to make things up. One of his novels, "The House of Sand and Fog," was a finalist for the National Book Award. So why write a memoir, why shed the fiction writer's honorable cloak? Good fiction is more honest than most memoirs.

I've read Dubus' fiction, and I've read his father's fiction, and I've always assumed Dubus III's conspicuous talent was due, at least in part, to growing up in a writer's house where he was surrounded by smart books and smart people. I imagined he learned by osmosis.

So I was not surprised to read Dubus' description of his parents' parties in "Townie" (W.W. Norton, 352 pp., $25.95), how he and his siblings would observe the lettered men and women. "I remember hearing a lot of dirty words then but also ones like story, novel, and poem. Hemingway and Chekhov," he writes.

Even better, the Vonneguts were neighbors. "The father, Kurt, would walk down to our house every afternoon and sit with us four kids in the living room and watch Batman on the small black-and-white." Vonnegut confides that his favorite Batman character is the Riddler. How cool is it to have Kurt Vonnegut tell you he likes the Riddler?

This idyllic portrait of the artist as a son of a writer takes a surprising turn when his parents separate and he and his siblings stay with his mother, who moves them "from one cheap rented house to the next." They eventually land in a section of town where "kids roamed the neighborhood like dogs." Dubus gets beat up regularly. He hides inside. Instead of reading books, he watches TV.

Dubus also watches movies, including "Billy Jack," "Walking Tall" and "Dirty Harry." Revenge fantasies bubble up. After repeated humiliations, and frustrated by his inability to defend himself or his siblings, he begins to work out and run obsessively. He learns to box, he learns to street fight.

This memoir is largely about his romance with violence — the initial flirtation, the heavy petting, the immersion and eventually the break-up. Dubus has unsettling insights into the allure of violence, and these insights eventually set him free as he realizes that "There were other ways to get this pus out, to express a wound."

Writing, of course, becomes the other way: "I knew then that if I wanted to stay this awake and alive, if I wanted to stay me, I would have to keep writing."

This memoir is also about his reconciliation with his father, writer to writer. "Gone was that subtle look that his time with you was something to do between writing sessions, that you were a pleasant or unpleasant distraction."

After finishing the book, I was still not sure why Dubus stepped out from behind the art of fiction, but I was glad he did. He is such a solid writer, he redeems the genre. He shows that truth can be as honest as fiction.

Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist

is the author of "The King of Methlehem."

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