Dubus slows again, then stops. He points past me, out the shotgun window. "See the big pine tree, that big evergreen?" he says. He's showing me his father's grave. He considers getting out of the car, walking me over to it; but the snow's too deep, there's no path in. "See?" he says. There it is, underneath a bough weighed with snow, a black stone that marks the place where Dubus, his brother, and a good friend dug the hole and placed their dad into the earth in the coffin the brothers built themselves. "The coffin was a simple pine box with a domed lid and it took Jeb and me all night to build," he writes in Townie.
We sit in quiet. I watch my voice recorder count 48 seconds of silence. Snow falls off a close tree, a heap first, absorbed into the ground, then a slow dusting down. Two cars pass by.
Dubus inhales. "That was something," he says.
We ease on down the road.
One wants to resist making comparisons between father and son, but they share in their writing a gift for earning sympathy for the toughest characters. The drinkers, the rapists, the strippers, the brawlers, the cheaters, the lazy, the misguided and confused. "I'm not equating my work with my father's because he's a real master, but I do know that he wrote with compassion, trying to literally suffer with someone, and I've always been that way too, without either of us talking about it together."
Both men shared an urge to protect. Dubus senior carried a gun with him for many years for "the protection I believed they gave people I loved, and strangers whose peril I might witness, and me," he wrote in an essay called "Giving Up the Gun."
Dubus the younger used his fists. "You could almost put a cape and mask on me," he says. "I really did step in when someone was beating up on someone smaller or a woman."
Townie is a book about violence. It is a book about fighting. Dubus writes of learning to fight as a way to protect himself, his family. His mother, a social worker, put in long hours in Boston, leaving Dubus, his older sister and younger brother and sister unsupervised for long stretches after she and Dubus senior divorced. There was never enough money. Sex started young. So did drugs. Dubus was bullied, so was his brother. Soul-sick of not being able to stand up for himself or his family, Dubus started working out. He built his body. He learned how to fight. Townie is the story of what brought him there, and what led him away.
He writes about what it is to hit someone. "I wanted to tell him [my father] about that membrane around someone's eyes and nose and mouth," he writes in the memoir, "how you have to smash through it which means you have to smash through your own first, your own compassion for another, your own humanity."
"I discovered that not only did I have the rage to break that membrane that I wrote about," he says, "but I also had the technique."