Being a writer who is also the son of a writer carries a fair risk of always having that relationship be the elephant in the room. The risk is magnified when your father is a writer famous for his short stories that detail the various permutations of familial train wrecks, of squandered paternal opportunities and put-upon wives, children neglected in the backgrounds. So: a memoir by the son, throwing a saddle on the elephant to try and ride it out of the room, risking getting trampled in the conflation of the two men.
It is also worth noting that the men have the same name.
In "Townie," Andre Dubus III relates a childhood spent at arm's length from his father, who left his wife and family to pursue 1) his writing and 2) his female writing students. The effect on the family is not remarkable in the form it takes: The mother works multiple jobs to make ends meet, the children find various forms of inappropriate expression for their malcontent. Dubus doesn't gloss over the details of their struggle, but he does reject interpreting those details as the primary focus -- in other words, he isn't here to present a Dickensian portrait of plucky son overcoming overwhelming odds and sticking it to dad.
What "Townie" offers is an extensive and considered accounting of how violence provides solace and the illusion of an escape. Dubus became a target of bullying early on as his mother moved them from one low-rent neighborhood to another. As he grew into adolescence, extensive weight training built him up -- and impressed his father -- but also provided him with the means to "break through the invisible membrane" around others (with his fists) and around himself. Shattering that invisible barrier between himself and others became his only outlet, putting him in increasingly dangerous situations as he was finding another possible escape: writing.
For Dubus to step into his father's shadow in this way -- to write such an unflinching memoir, describing the degrees of darkness and light he found there -- could be seen as a brave act from someone making his own way in the world. It can also be seen as a tribute to that thread running from this son to his father, that passion for words that turn over rocks and hold up what lies underneath. If the common fear of the offspring of famous writers is that they will not be able to define themselves outside of that shadow, Dubus has set a high water mark in this work: He shows us that the son's shadow can also be long, and can change the shape of that which came before it.
Matthew Tiffany is a mental health therapist and writer. He lives in Maine.