They had one pair of shoes each. When Dubus’s dad invites him to go running with him in the opening scene of “Townie,” he nearly pulps his feet by cramming them into his sister’s tennis shoes since he didn’t have any of his own. (This same sister, at one point, buys food for the family by selling drugs.) While their mother was at work in Boston, her kids experimented with drugs, alcohol, and sex while random teenagers used her living room as a drug den. Her children sometimes made it to school and sometimes didn’t. Dubus was beaten up on a daily basis.
If “Townie” were just about escaping poverty in 1970s and ‘80s Massachusetts, it would still be memorable. But what places it at the top of the heap with memoirs like Mary Karr’s “Liar’s Club” is its unflinching openness and the metamorphoses Dubus effects in his own life.
His first transformation is physical. When he is unable to protect his younger brother and mother from a 20-year-old Marine, the teenager starts lifting weights for hours each day, turning himself into a tank who can send a man to the hospital with one punch. He becomes a ferocious brawler, seeking out bullies on whom to slake his fury. Dubus writes about violence with rare candor and insight – both its sources and what it can do to a psyche.
His dad is proud of Dubus’s toughness and the fact he once fought 11 guys. (Dubus explains that he technically only fought three: the rest ran away.) But Dubus Sr. never understands how much of his son’s rage is directed at him, and the harshness of his children’s life is completely alien to the well-groomed world of college. (His dad played catch with him once when Dubus was a teen. He had no idea what to do with the ball.) They don’t really connect in the way the son craves until the senior Dubus loses the use of his legs after being hit by a car in 1986.