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Andre Dubus III takes a break at Rosie O'Shea's pub and restaurant in downtown Newburyport.
Andre Dubus III takes a break at Rosie O'Shea's pub and restaurant in downtown Newburyport. (Evan Richman/ Globe Staff)

Big-time writer, small-town guy

Andre Dubus III knows just where to savor the fruits of his authorial labors

Email|Print| Text size + By Kathleen Pierce
Globe Correspondent / October 28, 2007

NEWBURYPORT--They say most writers are failed talkers; not Andre Dubus III. The author of "House of Sand and Fog" likes to talk. He also likes to move, quickly.

So when I meet him for a tour of Newburyport, a city he has lived in on and off for 40 years, I'm glad I'm wearing comfortable shoes.

"Hey, you made it," says Dubus, 48, striding out of his house in nearby Newbury in shorts and sandals, and clutching a cup of coffee.

Thanks to the success of his novel-turned-film, Dubus built himself a sprawling manse. Behind a wall of bramble he lives a quiet existence with his wife, Fontaine, and their three children.

"I could never afford to live in this town if I didn't build this myself," says the former carpenter/boxer/bounty hunter who spent his formative years in nearby Haverhill.

Although the plan is to see Newburyport through Dubus's eyes, he is none too eager to leave his house, so that's where our tour begins.

"I wanted a kitchen that felt like a factory. This is a great place to cook," says Dubus, looking rather small amid the soaring ceilings and massive island in the room.

He shows us where he writes (the upstairs bathroom, which is outfitted with a desk), reads, eats, and smokes the occasional cigar. Awash in bright hues, filled with creative nooks and multiple terraces, it's a house where anyone would want to live. And many do. There's an in-law apartment downstairs where his wife's parents live.

"Three generations in a house feels the way it's supposed to be," says Dubus.

He was not always so content. His late father, Andre, an acclaimed short story writer, left the family when his son was young, leaving him and his siblings "latchkey kids who lived in a house without a lock." He grew up during a sketchy time in Newburyport and once lived in a trailer on Plum Island and bartended in town.

"It was a tough and ugly town; it looked like Beirut," he says of the city in the old days.

Once he left, he thought he'd never return. But in the late '80s, when he met his wife, a Salisbury native, he moved back to find a rejuvenated waterfront and a changed area.

"I lived in cities. I lived in New York; I've lived in San Francisco; I've lived in Boston. I don't like cities. I'm not a city guy. I'm a small-town country guy; that's why I love this town," he says.

We jump into his hulking green truck and head off to drop Ariadne, 12, at dance class. Even though she is late, he takes the long way.

"What I love about Newburyport and Newbury is, first, it's rural, and it's on the water, and there are all these beautiful houses and buildings, but sometimes I feel guilty about all the beauty that I'm surrounded by," says Dubus as he drives under a canopy of trees.

It's late summer, and Newburyport's Market Square is crowded with cars and day-trippers. Dubus, taking slugs of his seemingly bottomless cup of dark roast, finds a rare parking spot on State Street. "Most people complain there's too much traffic, but it's nice to live in a town where everybody wants to be," he says.

Our first stop is Fowle's, a Newburyport institution founded in 1865. There's a vintage neon sign out front, geometric tiles and wooden booths inside, and a pervasive feeling of nostalgia.

"Check out the tile. Isn't it the nuts?" Dubus says, indicating the white, green, and red hexagonal design underfoot. They please him so much he commissioned an artist to feature them in a painting that hangs outside his bedroom.

The jovial Dubus orders a round of iced coffees and disappears into a back booth. "Sometimes I'll write here, but really, I just come for coffee."

After a minute, you understand why he doesn't hole up in a booth too long. Go anywhere here with a guy who looks like a cross between Kurt Russell and John Mellencamp, and people notice.

At the next table a foursome is beaming at Dubus. They introduce themselves as Fowle's new owners. Dubus seems tickled to meet them. "That's cool. We got to meet the new owners," he says as we walk over to the cigar case.

He studies the selection. "I would order Cubans, but I can't get them here." He settles for Panter Mignons from Holland, stashing them in his pocket for later. The closet smoker will light up on his balcony at home. "I never smoke in public," he says.

It's a few days after Luciano Pavarotti's death and Dubus has a yen for Italian opera. "I just heard this great duet he did with Sting - have you heard it? It blew me away."

As if he can't wait another minute, he zips around the corner and bounds into Dyno Records. The tiny shop with lemon-yellow walls reverberates with bebop. Dubus is all business. He knows the record clerk, George Little, and politely asks: "When you get a chance can you help me find some Pavarotti?"

He holds up a Patti Scialfa CD approvingly and riffles through others on display.

"Do you like Sinead O'Connor?" he asks, waving a CD. "What do you think about that whole thing when she ripped the pope's picture? . . . Didn't bother me."

They are sold out of Pavarotti, so Dubus moves from opera to symphonies without skipping a beat. After a discussion with Little about Brahms, a new interest, he walks out with a collection of the composer's complete works. Back on the street he overflows with the ease of it all.

"What I love about Newburyport is you can get anywhere by walking around," Dubus says. "And it's a town that I can drop my kids off, and they can just hang out for an hour or two, and I'm not too worried. It really is an idyllic little place; I've never seen a place so idyllic really."

To warm up to write, Dubus reads poetry. Lucky for him Newburyport is strong on independent bookstores. He is torn between which to visit. The Book Rack wins out. When we walk in, his 2001 novel, "Bluesman," is front and center, a staff pick. Laughing, Dubus doesn't pretend to be embarrassed. "Hey look, my book. That's so cool."

After ordering a book on Islam he needs for research on the novel he's writing, he finds himself in the poetry section. "I buy more poetry than fiction. It takes me to a meditative state," he says.

One of his favorite poets is Stephen Dunn; a favorite author is Cormac McCarthy.

When it comes time to eat, Dubus's tastes don't reach much higher than The Grog, another old faithful. But Angie's Food is closer to the bookstore. With its red, green, and white walls, this breakfast-served-all-day place feels like a comfortable haven.

It's high feeding time, and the Pleasant Street restaurant is packed with locals and tourists. A booth opens up by the window, and Dubus falls into conversation with Justin Quinn, a blues harp player and hairdresser from down the street. Dubus becomes so engrossed in a discussion about military recruitment that he forgets about eating altogether.

Although he is scheduled to hit the gym later, the peripatetic author detours into Rosie O'Sheas. The pub's rose-colored walls and Celtic warmth are inviting. A pint of Guinness arrives with a thick, creamy head. "I like this place because it's dark and it's cool and it's Irish," says Dubus, taking a sip.

Because of its central location, Rosie O'Sheas is where he often schedules interviews. "I once brought a journalist who flew in from Paris here." His favorite perch is the high-top table to the right of the front door.

"I didn't realize this until my late 20s, but whenever I was out in a bar or restaurant, I had to have my back to the wall," Dubus says. "You had to be able to look around and see who you were going to fight."

That makes sense for someone who grew up having to constantly defend himself. "I ran into a guy I went to high school with at the gym recently and he said more than 45 of our classmates from Haverhill High School are dead from drugs, alcohol, and violence and bad luck."

That was then. Heading over to the waterfront, passing buskers and ice cream vendors, Dubus seems light-years away from the tough times. He looks at the moored boats with the wide-eyed innocence of a kid, and it seems he still can't quite believe where he landed.

"This friggin' town looks like a Dickens painting," he says.

As we cross the cobblestones toward the car, a musician strums a guitar in the late-day sun and Dubus smiles.

"I love that I can get cigars, a pint, music - all within walking distance. It's the nuts . . . I love this town."

Kathleen Pierce, a freelance writer in Lowell, can be reached at kmdpierce@gmail.com.

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