I’m about halfway through Andre Dubus III’s memoir Townie, and I love it. I have all kinds of Big Thoughts about it, but those will have to wait for now. As anyone who has talked to me in the last few weeks probably knows, I grew up in Haverhill, the city where the majority of the book takes place.
That has colored my reading extensively, since my mental pictures of several of the landmarks in the book seem more “real” to me somehow, despite this being a tale of Haverhill in the 1970s, and my recollection of the place is from the 1980s and early 1990s. I can picture the “rambling one-story complex of cinderblock and glass” that was the high school because it was my high school too. (And, like the author, I too thought the statue of “the thinker” — Michelangelo’s, not Rodin’s — looked like a man sitting on a toilet.)
Despite my identifying and nodding in recognition of certain restaurants, bars and bowling alleys, Dubus’s experience is so utterly divorced from my own that it is like reading about a different place. His descriptions of Bradford, the “town across the river” (and, technically, the one I actually grew up in, but if we’re going to get into Merrimack Valley semantics, I lived in some Bradford/Ward Hill No Man’s Land on the literal outskirts of town) are filled with a longing and resentment that is sad and understandable given his circumstances. I felt out of place in Bradford too, but for different reasons.
Since my head space is pretty much nothing but social memory and collective identity these days, I’m finding myself drawn to local coverage of the book’s release. Haverhill’s mayor posted on Facebook that “the Haverhill [Dubus] talks about is not what I remember” and expressed concerns about the city’s image in the wake of Townie‘s publication. The comments section features people chiming in on whether this was “their” Haverhill or not.
I found the exchange to be an interesting exercise in memory and countermemory, as several people wanted to contest Dubus’s narrative so that the identity of Haverhill as a city on the rebound can remain the dominant one. This may prove to be difficult, as the current popular culture trope for eastern Massachusetts right now is the hardscrabble existence portrayed in films like The Fighter, The Town, The Departed and Gone Baby Gone. In fact, I will be shocked if this book is not optioned and made into a film.
I have other thoughts about the book, but I’m going to hold off until I finish reading it. But let’s just say that I find it incredibly telling that Townie started as an essay on baseball.