This is not the Andre Dubus III you think you know.

In his soon-to-be-released memoir "Townie," the award-winning and best-selling novelist depicts a "passive and cowardly boy" who deliberately turns himself into a street-fighting man, but who ultimately renounces violence.

"Townie" tells the story of a young man growing up in a thoroughly dysfunctional family, drifting between the slums of Haverhill and Newburyport. (That's right, there were once slums in Newburyport.)

The Dubus who emerges from the pages of "Townie" is thoroughly at odds with the man he has become: a successful writer and National Book Award finalist, a solid family man, literate and articulate, a respected member of his community.

"The best part of my life is as a husband and a father, and I'm grateful for the life I have now," he said recently, sitting in the living room of the Newbury home he shares with his wife of 22 years and their three children.

The 51-year-old Dubus is perhaps best known for his 1999 novel, "House of Sand and Fog," which was a best-seller and was made into a film starring Ben Kingsley. He has also written two other novels, "Bluesman" (1993) and "The Garden of Last Days" (2008). His first published work was "The Cage Keeper and Other Stories" (1989).

Dubus described "Townie" as "almost an accidental memoir."

"I was working on a personal essay about how my sons introduced me to baseball and football," he said. "I love those sports now, and I was wondering 'How did I miss baseball?' And the answer was this book."

Boys and young men typically learn about sports from their fathers, but Dubus' father left his wife and four children when the author was 10. They never went to a ball game together until after Dubus was a grown man.

His mother, Patricia, overwhelmed by her work and her life, often left her children to fend for themselves.

Dubus writes of aimless after-school gatherings at his family's nondescript apartments, parties fueled by alcohol and drugs, and of not having enough to eat.

Bullied by older, bigger boys, young Andre began lifting weights and took boxing lessons. He learned first to fight back, and then turned to fighting as a first option rather than a last resort.

He portrays family members — his parents; older sister, Suzanne; and younger siblings, Jeb and Nicole — in stark and often unflattering terms.

There are some genuinely shocking scenes in "Townie": Suzanne is raped. Jeb attempts suicide. Andre and his father later talk about hiring a hit man to beat up Suzanne's abusive husband.

In the book, Dubus thanks his surviving family members "for allowing me to write so openly from my memory of our mutual past."

"I didn't want to write a family history," he said. "I tried to write about only where my life intersects with theirs."

His mother has read the book and had no disputes, he said. Suzanne has also read it, he said, but neither Jeb nor Nicole has.

"Nicole said she doesn't want to relive those days," Dubus said. "Jeb might read it. Nicole won't."

Patricia Dubus recently received certification as a Montessori teacher for young children. Suzanne is director of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, a Newburyport-based domestic violence prevention program. Jeb is an architectural designer and builder. Nicole is a licensed clinical social worker.

Dubus's father, Andre Dubus Jr., was a Marine Corps veteran-turned-writer and teacher at the now defunct Bradford College in Haverhill.

After he walked out, he still maintained contact with his children, but the relationship was often awkward and strained.

Dubus said his embrace of violence may have been a way to release his anger at his distant father.

But father and son reconciled before Andre Dubus Jr. died at 62 in 1999.

"I felt no anger in writing this," he said.

Andre Dubus Jr. was in a horrible accident in 1986. He lost both legs when he was struck by a car after stopping to assist another motorist. Andre Dubus III grew closer to his father after the accident.

The final scene of "Townie" takes place at Andre Dubus Jr.'s funeral. A car passes by the cemetery, and someone inside shouts an obscenity at the mourners. Dubus visualizes a response in which he jumps in his own car, chases and catches the culprits, and beats them mercilessly — but instead he stays focused on the funeral.

The scene reflects the affirmation of a triumph over violence that occurred earlier.

Dubus and his wife, Fontaine, are traveling at night by train in Ireland, the only young adults in a car filled with little German schoolgirls and elderly passengers.

All are trying to sleep, but a succession of thugs pass through the car, en route, Dubus said, to meet a drug dealer elsewhere in the train.

Dubus stops one of the drug buyers and tells him, "This car's closed."

To stop the fellow's ensuing obscenity-filled rant, Dubus persuades him to go out on to the platform between cars. There, in the dark, Dubus convinces the man to leave.

He is later confronted by the drug dealer himself, angry at the interruption of his sales, but Dubus manages to persuade him to leave.

In those incidents, Dubus writes that a part of him seemed to have died — the violent part.

"I no longer cared whether I looked tough or not," Dubus said.

What does he want to achieve with his first significant work of nonfiction?

"I hope this reaches inside the reader," he said, "and the rest is out of my hands."

• • •

"Townie" is scheduled for release in February, published by W.W. Norton & Co.


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