Along about p. 100 I had to check the cover of TOWNIE to make sure I wasn't rereading Chuck Palahniuk's THE FIGHT CLUB by mistake. And it didn't much let up until the last hundred pages (and even that stretch was seasoned with fists, fury, and f-bombs galore). Dubus III chooses to focus on his coming-of-age days, specifically how he learned to build muscle and engage with all manner of white trash in the mill towns north, northwest of Boston. It isn't pretty, and it does grow redundant.
Perhaps it's a case of disappointed expectations. I anticipated more of a literary memoir -- one that focused on Andre's writing apprenticeship and the influence of his dad, the celebrated short story writer. In fairness, it is the father-son angle that is this book's strength. Like many writing fathers, Andre Dubus, Jr., let his kids down as he went through young wife after young wife, devoting mornings to his writing and leaving his first wife (Andre's mom) to fend for the four fledglings. Young Andre III, like some classic 90-pound-weakling in a comic-book Charles Atlas ad, vows to build muscles with relentless work outs so that he can defend himself and others in the hardscrabble, blue collar environs of his hometown. Trouble is, he is to his family and friends what the United States is to planet Earth -- the world's policeman. He sticks his nose in every possible wrongdoing he can, sometimes to his own detriment and often to others'. After a while it's not only his victims yelling, "Uncle!", it's his readers.
Another oddity in the book is the way he relates his initiation into writing. It's as if a light switch is thrown and... voila... he stays home from boxing one night to brew tea and write short stories. There is little mention of book reading or author emulating (what you'd expect of any writer-in-the-making) in the years leading up to this and continued ado about punching, killing, and maiming Boston's trash out in the cruel, cruel world. Then, in what appears to be his second story ever, an acceptance slip comes from PLAYBOY magazine, of all markets, one of the best-paying, most-impossible-to-breach markets. Whoa. The way it's approached in this book, it seems... out of the blue. Who, other than his dad and Breece DJ Pancake (one of the very few mentioned contemporaries) were his role models? Why do we hear about boxing coaches but never writing mentors?
It was a grind, but I hung in there for the 15th round. I was rewarded with some touching moments at the end between father and son. For me, the ending spoke of the promise that this book brings and earned it a third star. As a memoir, however, it is disappointingly limited in scope and redundant in execution. For fans of literary non-fiction, this is a letdown. For fans of Friday night boxing, a sweet reward.