This memoir recounts Dubus's life growing up poor in the 1970s in Haverill, an impoverished mill town on the Merrimack River, an environment I'm very familiar with from my years in Worcester. Dubus's father, a writer and professor at Bradford College across the river, left the family when Andre was 11. Burdened with the responsibility he's undertaken to protect his two sisters and younger brother while their embattled mother works to support the family, Andre struggles with what he believes to be his own cowardice.
There are all kinds of reasons for writing a memoir, such as to record your life for your children or to work through a difficult time in your past. A memoir for the general public, though, must be about more than “I had a hard life.” I've been surprised by how many people in some of my online writing groups are working on memoirs because of an unhappy divorce or a bout with cancer or a death in the family; they believe that an account of their experience will help others going through the same thing. I expect that was true of the first fifty divorce/cancer/death memoirs, but wonder how many more can find a readership. As writer Aleksandar Hemon said in an interview in The Writer's Chronicle, “the confessional memoir . . . genre is practically dead because it's always the same thing: addiction, despair, some kind of abuse. It has become a form unto itself. How many addiction memoirs can you read?”
To appeal to the general public, I see three possibilities: a memoir has to be written by a celebrity (or a ghostwriter pretending to be the celebrity), contain utterly amazing writing (see Angela's Ashes, The Glass Castle), or address some larger issue. Dubus became somewhat of a celebrity when his novel House of Sand and Fog was selected as an Oprah book. The writing here is good but not take-your-breath-away great. That leaves a larger theme.
One could make the case that the book is primarily about his relationship with his father. The book starts with his father deserting the family and ends with his father's death, in between recounting their difficult and often misunderstood reconnections. By itself, this might not lift the story out of the merely personal, though certainly the issue of disappearing fathers and abandoned boys is one that is of great consequence to our society.
It is a related theme that interests me more, though. Preyed upon my neighborhood bullies and without a father's protection, young Andre turns to violence, embracing weight training, street fighting and, eventually, boxing as the way to protect himself, his family, and anyone else he sees being bullied. The most moving part of the book for me recounts why and how he gradually turned away from this path.
I was also interested in how he turned to writing. With my writer's hat on, I have to admit to a couple of quibbles with the book. As writers we are told to include sensory details. However, stacking them up at the beginning of a scene, as Dubus often does, listing every smell and then every sound, etc., is not as effective as spreading them out a bit. I listened to the book on CD read by the author, which meant that the pronunciations and accents were correct. Unfortunately, though, the author's monotone voice tended to make me zone out; a professional actor would have held my attention better.
As a mom, I was disturbed by the concentration on the father with very little mention of the mother who did not abandon her son, who worked sometimes menial jobs to support him and his siblings, and who actually came to his rescue when he was bullied. She is just a shadowy figure, away at work too much to see the trouble Andre and his siblings are getting themselves into. I realise that would be a very different book, and that the great strength of this book comes from its examination of what it means to be a man in the United States. Still, my heart goes out to her, along with my respect, and I hope her children recognise the enormity of what she gave them.
There is a happy ending here. The four children do manage to grow out of the drugs and fighting and inappropriate sexual liaisons to become contented adults who are fulfilling the promise buried under the difficulties of a life of poverty. This, too, is a good lesson for me: to look at a teen-aged drug dealer or hooligan and know that it is not too late for the child within.