Five Hundred Words on “Townies”

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, a friend asked me on Twitter about suggestions for a good short story collection for “n00bs.” As a creative writing professor who specializes in the teaching of the short story, I had no shortage of answers, tweeting three different options at him in rapid succession. But the option I hope he chooses first, the one that I think will hook him on short stories, is Selected Stories by Andre Dubus.

There is a little something for everyone in Dubus’s work, whether it’s the father exacting vengeance on his son’s killer in “Killings,” the college girl struggling with weight issues in “The Fat Girl,” or the lifting-obsessed narrator in “The Pretty Girl” who starts things off by telling us he “don’t know how [he feels] till [he holds] that steel.” It’s the man struggling with faith and fatherhood in “A Father’s Story” that I think will hook my friend, but I think the beauty of Selected Stories is the many different avenues Dubus provides to get us to go where he wants us to go.

My own obsession with Dubus centers around the story “Townies,” which was first brought to my attention during a fiction workshop at Bradford College led by David Crouse. Dubus was a predecessor of David’s at Bradford, and “Townies” is set on a college campus that, while never named, is very obviously the same school where he taught and I later attended.

I could write (and have written) a great deal more than five hundred words on “Townies,” but let me focus in on one particular aspect of the story with the space I have left.

“Townies,” for me, is a story about erosion. Set in the northeast, in a mill town, the piece is as much about the town itself as it is about the men that the town is wearing down.

The college, like the river just down the hill, both erodes and feeds the town. The river once fueled a thriving shoe industry, but now it simply eats away at its banks. The college also brings in business, especially to the local bars. But, more importantly, it erodes the spirits of the townies—the men, in particular—who are not privileged enough to walk as equals among the rich coeds attending the school.

For a guy whose strength is character, “Townies” really shines in its use of setting. That’s not to say that the characters aren’t memorable—Mike and the security guard are two of the most unforgettable protagonists in a book full to the brim with unforgettable protagonists—but merely to point out that you don’t necessarily expect setting to play such a huge role in a Dubus story. Here, however, it does.

And really, I think my point is that you never know what you’re going to get with Dubus, only that what you’re going to get will be amazing.