One of the most moving collections of essays I know is Broken Vessels by Andre Dubus II. Almost twenty years ago I recommended it to Commonweal readers, praising the author’s “sacramental imagination.” Some of those essays were written prior to, some after, the horrific accident that cost Dubus the use of both legs. (He stopped to help a young woman whose car had broken down on the highway and ended up saving her life.) Dubus’s recuperation and subsequent literary work are a testimony to his generosity of spirit and a tribute to the family and friends who sustained him through dark nights and days.
One member of that family, his son Andre Dubus III, is a distinguished writer in his own right. And though the phrase “sacramental imagination” does not appear in his new memoir, Townie, the book bears many traces of an inheritance from his father: a pervading sense that the everyday is charged with surpassing grandeur.
Townie is, among other things, the story of a boy’s coming of age in the decaying cities north of Boston, living amid the drink, drugs, and sex that enthralled so many people his age in the 1970s. Dubus has a novelist’s feel for time and place: he doesn’t so much send us a report from the Haverhill, Newburyport, and Lawrence of his youth as take us there. The Merrimack River is a winding, brooding presence in this book. So are the people who shaped him: friends and foes; his two sisters and younger brother; his mother, who worked long hours and struggled to hold her family together; the father who left the family and, though he visited his children regularly, seemed oblivious of their financial and emotional plight. While he lived and taught at a verdant campus not far distant, it was a world removed from the mean streets that his eldest son prowled.
A defining moment for the fourteen-year-old was the day he helplessly watched the vicious beating of his younger brother and heard insults hurled at his mother by a neighborhood tough, home on leave from the army. Looking at himself in the bathroom mirror, Andre vowed: “I don’t care if you get your face beat in, I don’t care if you get kicked in the head or stabbed or even shot, I will never allow you not to fight back ever again.” So he began to lift weights, learned to box, and soon released his rage by pummeling other young men. He celebrated an unholy communion of blood and broken teeth—sometimes to chants of “Kill him, kill him!”
Ever so slowly, this violent energy got channeled in a more creative direction; the semi-abandoned offspring of a famous writer became a writer himself. How this transition—this discovery of vocation—developed is only hinted at in the memoir. But, somehow, the sweating intensity formerly spent in fighting was finally directed at the even more formidable challenge of the blank page.
Among his father’s essays is one I return to again and again, “On Charon’s Wharf.” Charon, of course, is the boatman who ferries the dead in Greek mythology. Dubus père et fils both have a poignant sensitivity to man’s mortality and the imperative to fight for life. Joining the Marines (like father) or training for the Golden Gloves (like son) is an initiation into manhood, fashioning an adult ego capable of defending self and loved ones, but also glorifying the ability to destroy or subdue one’s adversaries.
On one occasion at a Miami airport, Andre III severely beats a man who had physically abused a woman, then basks in the plaudits of police and fellow travelers. But washing the blood from his arms in the plane lavatory, the grown man, now a published author, once more gazes into the mirror, as he had when a boy of fourteen. This time the revelation is different: “Don’t think you did any of this for her because you didn’t. You did it for you. And you need to stop. You need to stop doing this.”
From here on, this powerful memoir takes a deeper turn. One reviewer has expressed regret that “a sleek muscle car of a memoir...loses traction in clichés about redemption at its very end.” I suggest, to the contrary, that the final forty pages achieve a stunning luminosity.
They begin with a dream Dubus has while visiting England with his young wife. In it Dubus is blocked from reaching his wife by a group of twelve young men, bulky football players. As he readies to fight them, a preacher appears and warns him: “You’re gonna die.” Unnerved by the dream, Dubus became convinced that he would indeed die before the trip ended. And it seemed the premonition was about to be verified during a night train ride across England and a confrontation with a number of drunken young men who appeared in the railroad carriage, looking for drugs and terrifying a group of school girls traveling on holiday. Andre met them face to face—this time not with aggression, but with peaceful appeals to more generous instincts. And this worked. It was as if, by drawing back from his own ego-fueled hostility, he managed to create a space for genuine fellow-feeling. The warrior’s ego, so laboriously constructed over many years as a shield from pain, yields to a truer self, which is capable of transforming hostility rather than mirroring it. And this appears as sheer grace.
Back in the United States, there is the added grace of a reconciliation, as a reunited family gathers for Sunday dinners in the handicap-accessible house the sons have helped design and build for their father. On one such occasion the Dubus brothers rib their father about a short story he has just finished. In it “the protagonist builds a coffin for a dead man, then digs his grave near a stand of trees, and he does it all in a three-hour afternoon.” The sons teasingly remark on the impossibility of the feat. “His eyes bright and mirthful,” their father replies, “When I die you boys can build my coffin and dig my grave and then you can see how long it takes.” In the event, it took the sons the better part of a night to build their father’s coffin—and, some months later, when the ground had thawed, almost eight hours to dig his grave with the help of a friend.
As family and friends gathered for the interment, a car of teenagers raced past the cemetery, and one boy leaned out the window, hurling a coarse epithet. Then, as the priest began the final commendation, Andre’s imagination set off in pursuit of the teenagers to avenge the insult. Flooded with adrenaline, his mind suddenly performs a dazzling fugue, recapitulating the scenes of his youth, the wild, dizzying journey that has led him to this spot of soft earth. As the fugue soars, the prayed “Our Father” serves as a sustaining cantus firmus.