Thursday, July 21, 2016

Townie and The Confessions

The year after he became Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine set out to write The Confessions, an account of his sinful past and conversion to Christianity. His story is familiar to many and chronicles behavior that we would not typically associate with a saint. By his telling, he passed his adolescence in a fog of lust, eventually fathering a child and taking up with various concubines well into adulthood. For a while he was a member of the heretical Manichean sect. Only after a long and gradual conversion did Augustine turn from his ways, and he was officially received into the Church at age 32. Soon he became a priest, then bishop, and, thanks to his great influence and spiritual writing, a Doctor of the Church.

Clearly, Augustine’s journey was one that passed from bad to good, from sin to redemption, from darkness to light. Why, then, after his conversion, would he look backwards to his waywardness in writing The Confessions? Now that he had put on new garments, so to speak, in his conversion, why would he want to focus on the soiled ones? What was to gain?

These questions frame The Confessions, one of the most influential works ever written, spiritual or no. And because they frame what is considered the West’s first autobiography, they also frame its modern-day literary successor: the memoir. And because I was reading The Confessions in preparation for a teaching assignment in the fall, these questions were buzzing in my head a few weeks ago as I left the coffee shop where I had been reading and wandered over to a used book store in an adjacent strip mall. On one of the shelves I recognized an author’s name: Andre Dubus, a highly regarded but little-known short-story writer to whom I had been introduced by the writing of Nick Ripatrazone, a big Dubus booster. I’ve only read a handful of his stories, my favorite so far being “A Father’s Story,” but I liked what I read and was eager for more.

The book I spotted, however, was not by Dubus but by his son, Andre Dubus III, and was called, simply, Townie: A Memoir. Dubus III is perhaps best-known for his best-selling novel The House of Sand and Fog, which was made into a major movie in the early 2000s. Townie chronicles the younger Dubus’ impoverished upbringing in towns and cities along the Merrimack River in northern Massachusetts in the 1960s and 70s. One would think that the child (and namesake) of an Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad who had a good teaching job would not have faced growing up in poverty, but the elder Dubus was several times married, and he left his first wife and their four children, largely, to fend for themselves.

In Townie, Dubus the younger, the second of those four children, describes, in great detail, a childhood spent in cities like Haverhill and Newburyport, once-robust industrial towns whose urban centers, by his time, had deteriorated into dens of abject poverty, violence, and all kinds of abuse: drug, alcohol, and sexual. Dubus grew up, by his account, surrounded by violence. In the book there always seems to be a fight somewhere, whether in the halls at school, on the street, or in Dubus’ own home.

The violence takes its toll on the young Dubus. This is not necessarily because he was on the receiving end of it (though he often was), but because, when confronted by it, he locks up in panic, and cannot fight back, though he wants to. After being around a fight he feels worthless, such as on the occasion when he sees his younger brother Jeb get beaten up on the family’s front stoop. Dubus knows he should help him but he stands frozen, speechless as his brother gets pummeled. In anguish Dubus runs inside, and stares into the mirror, almost in disbelief that a real person looks back at him, for he feels like he does not exist: “There was the non-feeling that I had no body, that I had no name, no past and no future, that I simply was not. I was not here.” Determined not to be a prisoner of his own fears, determined to be able to protect himself and his family, he makes a vow to the boy in the mirror: “I will never allow you not to fight back ever again.”

This pivotal moment occurs in Dubus’ early adolescence, and sets him on the path toward bodybuilding, brawling, and boxing. He trains night and day, and as his body grows harder he gains confidence. He fights often, and he fights well. He begins throwing the first punch, and frequently beats his opponent senseless. His trajectory is a stark one: over the course of just a few years, Dubus goes from a frightened teenager to a young man who relishes violence, who daydreams about smashing his enemies’ teeth in, and who, on several occasions, nearly beats people to death.

From what he reports Dubus rarely bullied others or picked fights, but only intervened when justice demanded it. Still, he starts to notice that he needed to fight, that it satisfied some deep urge within him, and this disturbs him. He stops boxing, let up on the street fighting, and turns to other outlets, especially writing. After many years and a revelatory dream, Dubus, as an adult, finally puts his violent ways behind him.

Like Augustine, Dubus has a conversion of sorts (his is not explicitly religious, but more on that later) and writes from the point of view of the “changed” self who has repented of his wicked ways. And like Augustine, in writing an autobiographical work he deliberately turns his gaze backwards, into the darkness from which he has emerged.

But to what end?

What is there to gain by revisiting a dark, even scandalous portion of one’s life? Christians could phrase the question more pointedly: what can the telling of sin teach us? Certainly Catholics can point to the sacrament of Confession as proof that there is value in voicing our transgressions, but can the same be said for telling the story of our sins to an impressionable audience of many (one’s readers) rather than to a priest in the privacy of a booth? This issue is not lost on Augustine. Early in The Confessions, he bemoans the Greek myths he read in school because they introduced him to vices, yet he then proceeds, of course, to describe his own licentiousness and waywardness. Isn’t he doing to his readers the exact thing he blamed his classroom reading for doing to him?

In Book II Augustine offers something of an answer to this conundrum, and in doing so, gives the raison d’etre of what we might call the spiritual memoir:
…to whom am I telling this story? Not to you, my God; rather in your presence I am relating these events to my own kin, the human race, however few of them may chance upon these writings of mine. And why? So that whoever reads them may reflect with me on the depths from which we must cry to you.
In Augustine’s understanding, there is nowhere where we can go, nothing that we can do, that can ever separate us entirely from God’s love. Where can we go, he asks, “but from you in your tranquility to you in your anger?” God is beyond harming, so our sin doesn’t hurt him, it hurts us. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” Augustine famously writes in the book’s opening paragraph, and therefore each bout of restlessness, each sin signifies an unfilled wholeness by pointing to our deep desire to be at rest in God.

“Come down, that you may ascend, ascend even to God,” Augustine boldly declares, offering advice to those who would draw others to God: “This is what you must tell them, to move them to tears in this valley of weeping, and by this means carry them off with you to God.” And this is what Augustine does in his book—he brings his readers down with him, into his dark past, in order to bring them up. In this sense he is not unlike Dante, who, at the start of the Divine Comedy, sees the mountain of ascent (Purgatory) and wants to climb it but is driven by beasts back into the wilderness from which he hast just emerged, where he meets Virgil, who takes him into Hell. In order to get to get to Heaven, Dante must first understand what the wilderness of sin has to teach him. In other words, Dante must learn how sin points to God. He cannot ascend without first descending, by venturing into his own darkness until he can stand in it without fear, and recognize that even there he is not alien to the “Love that moves the sun and other stars.”

Note that Augustine and Dante aren’t suggesting that we are drawn closer to God when we sin, but that our sins can help us understand our relationship to Him by indicating what it is we lack that can only be made whole in Him. Each sin is a distortion of some good. In his lustful adolescence, Augustine thought only of “loving and being loved,” in search of a deeper, more complete love. His time as a Manichee, however heretical the sect, he later understood as a stopping point on his search for a deeper truth. Each sin, for Augustine, is an intersection where one of the crossing roads always leads to God, and each sin therefore presents the sinner with an aspect of divine love, albeit concealed.

Andre Dubus III has written Townie from a similar perspective. The book does not hide much in the way of details, especially when it comes to violence: flesh and fists collide, bones are jarred, teeth swallowed, fighters awash in each other’s blood. He goes fairly easy on the sex, except perhaps for one scene. Vulgar language abounds. Yet in these details we see the seeds of the love which will eventually lead Dubus out of his darkness and into a greater communion with others and the world around him.

These seeds are perhaps most visible in Dubus’ depiction of the psychology of fighting. He describes a “membrane around someone’s eyes and nose and mouth, how you have to smash through it which means you have to smash through your own first.” It’s an odd way, to be sure, to describe the mentality of a fighter, and overtly sexual in its imagery. Yet it’s apt language to describe a soul breaking of out the isolation of fear. We are built to be united with others, and the desire for this union guides Dubus’ story, manifesting itself in many different aspects of his life. He longs for a real connection with his absent father, with his brother and sisters, with the bodybuilders he sees in magazines, with the broken individuals he encounters as a social worker.

For a teen on the streets of Haverhill, MA in the 1970s, the first step into that communion was a swung fist. As he stood in front of that mirror as an undersized nobody, Dubus experienced the nothingness of isolation. He hated how tougher kids would look through him, as if he wasn’t even there. And he knew, intuitively, that to be whole he needed to connect with other people in a real way, to be seen by them, to cease to be invisible. And so he resolves to fight back, and in doing so discovers that he must break through two membranes, two isolating barriers (that of the self and that of the other) for fist and flesh to connect. Noses are broken. Blood gushes forth. Teeth are swallowed. But the membranes have been rent. The movement toward communion has begun.

What am I suggesting? That the lonely and fear-stricken should turn to violence to encounter God? Or that every street-tough is a saint in disguise? Of course not. But just as Augustine, in his later years, looked back and saw a greater love in his lust, so too Dubus traces a deeper desire in his violence. In his “breaking of the membrane” is the germ of a real union with others, of a compassion that would lead Dubus to social work, to writing, and, eventually back to his own father.

The book opens with a teenage Dubus trying to keep up with his father on an eleven-mile run. Though he is not a runner and is wearing his sister’s sneakers, he refuses to give up and pushes himself past whatever physical limits he thought he had. By the end he is gasping and heaving for breath, his throat parched, his feet cracked and bleeding in the too-small shoes, but, drinking warm park-fountain water by his father’s side, he “couldn’t remember ever feeling so good.” This longing for a bond with his father—specifically, for his father’s affection—drives the story, and later we learn that the desire is mutual. Upon hearing of his son’s street-fighting escapades the elder Dubus, who up until then had never been in a fight, himself starts altercations while out drinking with his son.

In 1986 Dubus’ father stopped to help a pair of stranded motorists and was struck by a passing car. One of the people he stopped to help was killed, and the writer was injured badly. He broke thirty-four bones, and eventually lost a leg. The once-fit runner was confined to a wheelchair for the last decade of his life. Dubus the son, now writing and working as a bartender, is tasked with taking care of his father. He shaves him, bathes him, cleans out his bedpan. In these tasks, however, rather than disgust, Dubus finds joy, and he is confused: “how could there be any human room here for joy at all?” But it is joy nonetheless, and Dubus starts to see it in other places, too. Shortly after the accident, his father’s third wife gives birth to a baby girl, and Dubus is there, along with his weak, wheelchair-bound father, and feels, to his surprise (for he is not a religious man) “that something other than just us and our daily stumbling and striving may be here after all.” Dubus may have first broken the membrane of isolation with violence, but it has led to the kind of tender compassion we see in these scenes near the end of his father’s life. It has led, in hisown words, to “a love soul large my body could not hold it all,” and caused him to “[begin] to believe in the soul.”

Though his father was in a wheelchair for the last years of his life, he was not an invalid, and his death from cardiac arrest comes suddenly. The closing scene from the book takes place at a funeral service for the elder writer. Dubus’ father was, despite his failings, an attendee at the daily morning Mass at his local parish, and remained deeply religious throughout his life. The final vignette from Townie is a beautiful meditation—Dubus the son stands at his father’s grave while the priest leads those present in the Our Father. He hears a car roar by on the adjacent road, its occupants cursing at the mourners for fun, and his rage rises up in him again, as if it were 1975 and he were cruising downtown Haverhill eager to put up his fists. As the words of the prayer pass through his lips his mind travels back to those episodes from his youth, from the darkness of his past, and finally come to rest with the final phrase: “But deliver us from evil.” It’s a fitting and artful way to end a book that, in rooting into the sin of the past, discovers, perhaps unexpectedly, deliverance there as well.

Townie is not for everyone. There is a lot of violence, a bit more than Dubus needs to achieve his purpose, in my opinion. But that purpose is still there, and it’s what gives the book its strength. Dubus writes about the realities of his youth in greater detail than Augustine did his, but their goal is the same—to show that there is a bigger story at work in our lives, a presence that all along has been drawing us out of ourselves and into deeper relationships—with others, with the world, and with our Father. That presence works in darkness as well as light, in the depths as well as the peaks, though perhaps we can only see its effects once we have emerged from the wilderness to find the straight and true. Only then can we write about it, which Dubus has done so well in Townie.

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