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 prodigiously and joyfully as Isaac Fitzgerald, whose new memoir, “Dirtbag, Massachusetts,” chronicles his upbringing as the accidental byproduct of sin between two divinity students; his turbulent and violent childhood; his years of drugging, day drinking, scrapping, bartending and acting in porn; along with a sideline of missionary work in two Southeast Asian war zones. He describes his book as a “confessional,” although the only actual scene of confession we get is when young Isaac describes an early sexual encounter to an overly alert priest, whom Isaac later suspects was masturbating while listening.

Fitzgerald is the author of the children’s book “How to Be a Pirate,” which tracks with his brazen fate. Of course, there is no shortage of similar men in American literature. Fitzgerald nestles comfortably on a bar stool beside writers like Kerouac, Bukowski, Richard Price and Pete Hamill. “Dirtbag, Massachusetts” is a book by and for hard-drinking but soft-hearted men like these, and for those who take voyeuristic pleasure in their ne’er-do-well ways.

Fitzgerald’s own tawdriness comes with the pedigree of a private school education, after he was scooped up from a “town with the highest teenage pregnancy rate per capita in the state of Massachusetts” and given a free ride to Cushing Academy, “a place both soft and hard, cruel and kind. It was everything and it was a lot of it.” It is there that Fitzgerald replaces the cheaper drugs he’d been doing at home with “pharmaceutical speed” prescribed by doctors, crushed with a school ID and affectionately nicknamed “Diet Coke.”

After school, he floats around the country, committing “low-level health insurance fraud” in New Hampshire before winding up tending bar in San Francisco at the book’s Vatican, a former biker bar called Zeitgeist whose original owner “got shot up near Guerneville. ” “I loved bars from the moment I first drank in one at 14,” Fitzgerald writes. But it is at Zeitgeist where he finds his people, Kerouac’s “mad ones.” And it is to Zeitgeist he returns whenever he is back in San Francisco, even now, as a successful 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 go nameless in the book.

In fact, aside from his mother and a porn producer and actress named Princess Donna, women are hardly mentioned in “Dirtbag, Massachusetts”; the action is almost all centered on the doings of men. That’s not necessarily a criticism. The book’s charm is in its telling of male misbehavior and, occasionally, the things we men get right. The fights almost all come with forgiveness. It is about the ways men struggle to make sense of themselves and the romance men too often find at the bottom of a bottle of whiskey. If you’re looking for a book about what’s wrong and right with American men, you could do a lot worse than “Dirtbag, Massachusetts.”

There is much sin in Fitzgerald’s confessional, although none of it is mortal. Instead, it is an endearing and tattered catalog of one man’s transgressions and the ways in which it is 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 pp. | Bloomsbury Publishing | $27

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