Their dad, Dubus writes, did not make a lot as a professor. He did pay child support and take the kids out to dinner on Sundays. But he remained oblivious to the poverty and violence his children were steeping in. (The kids put on a front, not wanting to betray their exhausted social worker mom, but you’d think anyone even half-observant would have noticed the decrepit homes, dirt yard, and the fact that the children always showed up in the same clothes.)
This isn’t folksy lower-middle-class life, à la the town vs. gown rivalry in “Breaking Away.” Dubus and his three brothers and sisters were constantly hungry. Once a neighborhood friend “opened the fridge and saw its bright empty shelves and said, ‘What happened to the food?’ ” Dubus writes. “It’s something we’d all gotten used to, that hollowness in the veins, the nagging feel there always was just a bit too much air behind your ribs.”
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.