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Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional


Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional

There is much to marvel about in Isaac Fitzgerald’s marvelous memoir-in-essays, DIRTBAG, MASSACHUSETTS. But among its most noteworthy aspects is the fact that its author survived some of the events he describes long enough to write about them. From his “loud, dark childhood” in an abusive home, to his introduction to alcohol, drugs and petty theft as a 12-year-old, to the time he drove “black-out drunk” some 70 miles from Santa Cruz to San Francisco on a motorcycle, Fitzgerald’s life has been marked by more than its share of frightening moments. That he’s chosen to write about these experiences in such a revealing and compassionate way will make the many readers this book deserves happy that he’s still here.

“My parents were married when they had me, just to different people.” Fitzgerald memorably begins the opening essay, “Family Stories,” on this DAVID COPPERFIELD-like note. “I was born of sin: a mistake in human form, a bomb aimed perfectly to blow up both my parents’ lives,” he writes, describing the affair between his mother and father --- fellow divinity students and each the parent of another child at the time --- that produced him. When Fitzgerald was eight, his parents left their jobs with the socialist Catholic Worker in Boston and moved to his mother’s hometown in rural North Central Massachusetts, next door to the house of her own parents, who never forgave her for her transgression.

"There is much to marvel about in Isaac Fitzgerald’s marvelous memoir-in-essays, DIRTBAG, MASSACHUSETTS. But among its most noteworthy aspects is the fact that its author survived some of the events he describes long enough to write about them."

Although, as Fitzgerald explains in sometimes graphic and painful detail, that fateful decision inflicted incalculable damage on him and his family, the injuries weren’t irreversible. He had the good fortune to enroll in boarding school at age 14, which offered an escape from his troubled environment and helped him realize “for the first time in my life that change was possible.” He had “come to thrive on the feeling of being set into a far bigger container --- one whose possibilities I was growing into, with still more room to move.”

While Fitzgerald’s life was hardly unruffled after that transition and DIRTBAG, MASSACHUSETTS is populated with at least as many downs as ups, it’s also suffused with many warmhearted recollections. One of the most appealing is the story of the well-known San Francisco bar, Zeitgeist, where he worked for several years.

“Zeitgeist’s aesthetic is metal bar meets dive bar meets German beer garden,” he remembers --- “not just in how it looks but in the workers’ attitudes.” In that piece, “Home,” he affectionately describes his lifelong affinity for bars, a love affair that began from the moment he entered his first one at age 14 in Amherst, Massachusetts. “My father didn’t drink,” he writes. “So I spend a lifetime finding refuge in bars. Finding companionship in bars. Finding the father figures I didn’t know I was searching for in bars.”

Another equally forthcoming essay discloses Fitzgerald’s passion for the rock band The Hold Steady (if you’ve never heard their music, you’ll definitely be persuaded to look them up on your favorite streaming app after reading this encomium), describing how their music “operated as mirrors, reflecting our own experiences back onto us, even as they were windows, showing us how art could be made from the stuff of our lives.” He combines it with a touching remembrance of his friend Jef, a one-time Zeitgeist bartender who introduced him to the band’s music --- a reminder of the need to appreciate those we love while they’re still with us.

In these and other entries, like “Confessions of a Former Former Fat Kid,” in which he describes his lifelong struggles with weight and body image, Fitzgerald’s style marries candor and eloquence. He never minimizes his own transgressions; he is as open about his failings as he is unsparing in assigning blame to the parents who, for all their dedication to the Catholic Church and their shared commitment to a life of good works, set their own child’s life on its rocky course.

But Fitzgerald often shifts his focus from the travails of his family. Two of the book’s essays describe highly unusual interludes in his colorful 20s. “Maybe I Could Die This Way” (the piece that recalls his drunken motorcycle ride) captures the time he spent working for the Free Burma Rangers, an NGO that smuggled aid to anti-government rebels in the country of Myanmar. “The Armory” is the story of the time he happily performed as an extra in pornographic films in San Francisco, admitting that he found “safety, and love, and friendship, and fun in a massive brick BDSM porn compound.”

In the concluding essay, “My Story,” Fitzgerald brings his account full circle while on the cusp of his 40th birthday. This self-described “bastard prince of New England” has emerged from all his trials damaged, wiser, empathetic and, above all, clear-eyed about where he’s been and where he may be going. “Slowly but surely, I figured out how to live my life, how to find the things I loved and how to get good at those things and even be able to admit to myself that I was good --- that I was allowed to feel proud of myself.” As for his parents, “I haven’t forgiven them yet, but I try to. I try. I try. I try.”

It’s a hard-earned benediction to an equally moving story. If the second half of his life is even half as interesting as the first, there should be many more absorbing stories to come.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on July 29, 2022

Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional
by Isaac Fitzgerald

  • Publication Date: November 7, 2023
  • Genres: Essays, Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 1639731644
  • ISBN-13: 9781639731640