"My boundaries have always been a little funky," he says back in the truck. "I'm a bit of an open book. I'm the kind of guy who'll ask you how much you make, what size underwear you wear."
It's a trickier thing, though, when you're writing true things about other people. You can be as open a book as you want, but how to navigate what pages to open to in other people's lives?
"That's in some ways when I felt worst about the writing process," he says about working on Townie. "When I felt like I was getting really private, really personal, when I was shedding a light on other people I love, some of whom aren't here to defend themselves."
In Townie, Dubus writes about his sister's rape. He writes about the sexual abuse and suicidal urges of his younger brother. He writes about a lack of parental supervision that borders on neglect. And he writes about his father, who died in 1999, acclaimed short story writer Andre Dubus — his absence as Andre III was growing up, the effects it had.
"I've been trying to write about so much of this as fiction," Dubus says. "I've been trying to get this shit off my chest for years." But he's not the type of writer who can write fiction from his own life, he explains, and the fiction based on real life — unlike House of Sand and Fog, an Oprah's Book Club book and a finalist for the National Book Award, and eventually a movie directed by Vadim Perelman and starring Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley — often failed.
Townie started as an essay about baseball. A hundred pages in, when it was clear it was more than an essay, "I sort of breathed a sigh of relief and thought, 'Fuck it, I'm going to write it straight as Andre and let it fall where it falls.' "
It fell, in part, on fatherlessness. "I was surprised, actually, that my father's absence came into it as much as it did," he says as we make our way from Newburyport to Haverhill.
"I had this misconception that I was really angry and raging because I was a bullied kid. Man, that was just part of my rage," Dubus says. "That was just part of my darkness. What was a surprise as I was writing was the fatherlessness, the lack of a man in the house, the feeling that the world was constantly unsafe."
We're on a pretty stretch of road in East Rocks Village. Wide fields stretch with farmhouses and stone walls under trackless snow. Dubus slows the truck, points to a low, dark house with a winding ramp up a small hill. His father lived there with his third wife. In 1986 Dubus the elder lost one of his legs above the knee, and most of the use of the other one, in a highway accident on Route 93 North. He used a wheelchair until his death in 1999.
We pass a corral of buffalo, big beasts huffing breath clouds out black nostrils. I twist in my seat like a child to get a better look, and immediately feel silly.