Tuesday, February 7, 2012

How Did Our Book Club Discussion For Townie Go in Advance of Our Feb. 17 Event, Plus Upcoming Selections, Including a Special Mystery Group Guest on Feb. 27.

A little change-up this month. Due to a combined family visit/talk at a school, I didn't have time to write up our notes for the in-store book club discussion of Townie, by Andre Dubus III, who is coming to Boswell on Friday, February 17, 7 pm. So instead, her are my impressions of Dubus's memoir, and why it was a great choice for what I hope to accomplish with book club reading.

One of the things I hear all the time from our in-store lit book club attendees is that they never would have read what we had picked up outside the group. Generally they are grateful for the expansion of boundaries. Usually at least one member is not. But I think each stretch tends to be a little different, and that is the point of the group—to read great contemporary literature with enough of a challenge to it that there’s something to talk about, and that it is actually more rewarding to read it with discussion than without, at least for some of us.

Townie is one of those books that stretched me. Andre Dubus III’s memoir of growing up in a string of river towns along the Merrimack River is not just about fighting to survive drugs and violence and poverty and broken families and ignorance; it’s literally about fighting. In these towns, on the wrong sides of the tracks at least, there are bullies everywhere. And worse than that, there are what bullies are when they grow up—angry, bitter, drug-and/or-alcohol addled men with nothing to lose and power to gain.

Once Dubus decides to start working out and fight back, he gets in a series of fights, many, many, many fights, that form a persona as sort of a revenge-enator. This is the case where if Townie were a novel, I might say, “Enough fighting already”, but being that its true, I just kept reading on the edge of my seat. There’s always a sense that this is the fight that’s going to kill someone, maybe Dubus. I heard one reader describe it to me as a real-life Fight Club. There’s truth to that, but I think that might be simplifying the story a bit.

In a sense, this story is a classic “what will I be when I grow up” narrative. We read memoirs all the time of famous scientists who were playing beakers at ten, of sports stars who started shooting hoops and running laps at seven. Dubus, however, did not expect to follow in the footsteps of his father, the renowned writer. In fact, Junior was barely present in III’s formative years. He split after four kids and kept his presence to weekly meetings with the gang together. Only later did each kid get an evening alone with Dad, and that was just once a month.

This is one of those memoirs that follows the path of many a great novel—how did I get from there to here? Dubus follows many paths—construction worker, prison clerk, bartender, Marxist studies graduate student, and yes, boxer. At one point, Dubus sees how drawn he is to fighting and decides to start competing in the ring. The story is a classic competition then, but that of muscles versus the brain.

Townie is also a father-son narrative of course. And because it’s a memoir, we know what happened to Junior. But there’s an unexpected narrative there as well, with an arc that sort of reminds me of reading Raymond Carver’s biography (Raymond Carver), another story of a working class guy who had a phenomenal talent for writing and less success controlling his demons. Slightly different demons, of course, but let’s just say that at least some of my readers feel that III gave Junior a bit of a pass in the story.

In all, a great book club book in my estimation. It’s outside my comfort zone, great writing, with much to talk about. That said, I know I have customers that won’t be comfortable with Townie. They’ll tell me that they hated it. This book isn’t escapism, but brutal reality. And it’s possible that you don’t really hate the story; you just might not to confront the truth of it. Dubus and most of his family escaped that life, but there were an awful lot of people left behind.

Now I should remind you that Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog, The Garden of Last Days, and other books (but not In the Bedroom, that’s his father*) is coming to Boswell on Friday, February 17, 7 pm. And yes, we still have hardcovers--the paperback, though still of trade trim, is a little mass markety in feel.
Here are our next three in-store lit group selections, all starting at 7 pm:

Monday, March 5: Swamplandia, by Karen Russell.
Short-listed for the National Book Award and one of the New York Times Book Review’s top ten books of the year, this is our second Jason pick in a row. It’s got a quirky premise (a girl growing up in a struggling, second-rate Florida alligator theme park) but don’t expect a comedy; it’s a sad and beautiful story.

Monday, April 2: Open City, by Teju Cole.
Just short-listed for the NBCC awards, Cole’s first novel was one of the best reviewed novels of last year, and was #1 on his best books of the year countdown. I have a rule that I always read his #1—that was one of our reasons for tackling The Hare with Amber Eyes, and did we go wrong? No.

Monday, April 30: Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel. Note the special date!
We read our first graphic work, though it’s not a novel, but Bechdel’s memoir of her closeted gay father. It's billed as a tragicomic, which I love. And yes, it was shortlist for the National Book Award. We’re moving to the fifth Sunday of April for this book club discussion because Bechdel will be at Boswell the following Monday, May 7, at 7 pm.

And speaking of book clubs, our mystery book club has a special guest this month. The mystery group is reading But Remember Their Names, by Hillary Bell Locke on Monday, February 27, 7 pm, a legal thriller set at the Pittsburgh Natural History Museum (yes, I know in real life it’s the Carnegie). Joinng the group will be the real-life persona of Locke, our own Michael Bowen.

I just figured out that the title of the book is a play on "Flashdance," as this series is set in Pittsburgh. I love catching that stuff.

*As Mr. Dubus III notes, if it doesn't bother you about all the Hank Williamses out there, then you shouldn't complain that he and his father are both writers and share a name.


Actual post-event wrap up: I wasn't that far off from the reaction.

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