Review: “Dirtbag, Massachusetts”, by Isaac Fitzgerald

DIRTBAG, MASSACHUSETTS: A confessional, by Isaac Fitzgerald

Forgive us, men, for we have sinned. Some of us more than others, few of us as wondrously and happily as Isaac Fitzgerald, whose new memoir, “Dirtbag, Massachusetts,” recounts his upbringing as the accidental byproduct of sin between two students of divinity; his turbulent and violent childhood; his years of drugging, drinking, scrapping, bartending, and acting in porn; as well as missionary work on the fringes in two Southeast Asian war zones. He describes his book as “confessional,” though the only actual confession scene we get is when young Isaac describes an early sexual encounter with an overly alert priest, whom Isaac later suspects is masturbating while listening.

Fitzgerald is the author of the children’s book “How to be a pirate”, which follows with its cheeky tale. Of course, there is no shortage of similar men in American literature. Fitzgerald sits comfortably on a bar stool next to writers like Kerouac, Bukowski, Richard Price and Pete Hamill. “Dirt, Massachusetts” is a book by and for tough but soft-hearted men like these, and for those who take voyeuristic delight in their ne’er-do-well ways.

Fitzgerald’s own madness comes with the pedigree of a private school upbringing, having been picked up from a “city with the highest teenage pregnancy rate per capita in the state of Massachusetts” and driven for free at Cushing Academy, “a place both soft and tough, cruel and kind. That was it and it was a lot. It’s where Fitzgerald replaces the cheaper drugs he made at home with doctor-prescribed “pharmaceutical speed” crushed by a school ID card and affectionately nicknamed “Diet Coke.”

After school, he floats across the country, committing “low-level health insurance fraud” in New Hampshire before ending up running a bar in San Francisco at the Vatican of the Book, a former biker bar called Zeitgeist whose original owner “got shot near Guerneville”. “I loved bars ever since I first drank them at 14,” Fitzgerald writes. But it is at Zeitgeist that he finds his own, the “crazy people” of Kerouac. And it’s Zeitgeist he returns to whenever he’s back in San Francisco, even now, as a best-selling editor and author, years after working there. He writes about the bar with an affection that surpasses anything he has for his former lovers, most of whom remain anonymous in the book.

In fact, aside from his mother and a porn producer and actress named Princess Donna, women are barely mentioned in “Dirtbag, Massachusetts”; the action is almost entirely centered on the acts and gestures of men. This is not necessarily a criticism. The charm of the book lies in its account of the misbehavior of men and, sometimes, of the things that we men achieve. Fights almost all come with forgiveness. It’s about how men struggle to understand each other and the romance that men too often find at the bottom of a bottle of whiskey. If you’re looking for a book on what’s wrong with American men, you could do a lot worse than “Dirtbag, Massachusetts.”

There is a lot of sin in Fitzgerald’s confessional, though none of it is mortal. Instead, it’s an endearing, tattered catalog of one man’s transgressions and how it’s our sins, far more than our virtues, that make us who we are.

Michael Ian Black is a comedian, actor and author. His latest book is “A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son”.

DIRTBAG, MASSACHUSETTS: A Confessional, by Isaac Fitzgerald | 240 pages | Bloomsbury Edition | $27

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