Book Review: “Dirtbag, Massachusetts, A Confessional” — The Self-Indulgence of Victimhood
By Ed Meek
Essayist Isaac Fitzgerald sees the world from the perspective of someone who was victimized — in his case, by a physically abusive father and a needy, emotionally abusive mother.
Dirtbag, Massachusetts, A Confessional by Isaac Fitzgerald. Bloomsbury Publishing, New York, 2022. 240 pages, $27.
Isaac Fitzgerald is a literary celebrity. He appears on The Today Show and recommends books. His demeanor is enthusiastic, his personality bubbly. Intermittently, when speaking, he puts his hand on his heart. Dirtbag, Massachusetts (a name a friend of his gave to a town in Massachusetts) is a collection of essays in which he focuses on periods of his life from early childhood to the present.
In his poem “What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American,” the poet Richard Hugo writes “You blame this neighborhood for your failure. / In some vague way, the Grubskis degraded you/ beyond repair.” Apply this to Fitzgerald, but for “the Grubskis” substitute “your parents.” Like Hugo, Fitzgerald goes on to become quite successful and, like Hugo, he had an unhappy childhood. He sees the world from the perspective of someone who was victimized — in Fitzgerald’s case by a physically abusive father and a needy, emotionally abusive mother.
Hugo remained humble and surprised at his late life success and happiness. His past lent him some gravitas. He responded to his past the way a lot of comedians respond to their pain, with a kind of cynical humor. “You might come here Sunday on a whim, / Say your life broke down.” (“Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg”). Fitzgerald’s response is more emotional. “At some point, if we’ve grown close, I’ll reward you by breaking down and crying over dinner, detailing the pain. The suffering.” So Fitzgerald offers readers a voyeuristic reward by sharing his pain. In the concluding chapter, Fitzgerald tells us: “My hope is that you’ll take one thing away from all this, maybe the only life lesson I’ve learned: Do not put off acknowledging your pain.”
If you find yourself nodding along with that sentiment — and you are in the market for life lessons — this is the volume for you. Of course, this is the age of victimhood, isn’t it? Who among us hasn’t suffered or been attacked or abused or been done wrong? I have. My wife has. My brother who was apparently physically abused by my mother — who was an undiagnosed manic depressive and subject to shock treatments — moved to northern Maine in his twenties and never came back, not even for the funerals of our parents. Fitzgerald is now successful and happy but he remains emotionally vulnerable and he explains why in Dirtbag.
The first few chapters cover the author’s childhood, from a homeless period in Boston, when his parents depended on the Catholic church for help, (he loses faith in the church because of the predatory priest scandal) to a move to a working-class town in central Massachusetts where he became, for a short period, “the fat kid.” We move onto his tough early teen years of drugs, early sex, and fights. There is a transition to life in a boarding school where he was the scholarship boy who had to work part time. After an uneventful college experience, he is on to San Francisco where he finds home in a bar as both a patron and a bartender. This is not just any bar, but a “Tender Bar” (as in the book and movie) where Fitzgerald makes close friends and hangs out in his off hours.
The book and his life then take a couple of side trips. He goes to Burma with a Christian “humanitarian service movement” called FBR, the Free Burma Rangers, who work with people in the “conflict zones of Burma, Iraq, and Sudan.” This is a surprisingly intriguing move by Fitzgerald. His experiences should be compelling, but his focus remains squarely on himself, not on the success or failure of the mission to help others. He finds he is a happy guy riding around on a motorcycle delivering supplies to people. If you want to find out what the FBR is really doing there, you have to go outside Dirtbag and consult Google.
In the next chapter, Fitzgerald returns to San Francisco and hooks up with a company that makes porn movies. He is hired, first as an extra and then as a participant: “The fact is, I enjoyed porn.” He bonds with his fellow “models” and finds another “chosen family.” He also sees the experience as a welcome version of sex education, a way to become more comfortable with his body as he learns to communicate with partners about sexual needs and practices. Again, Fitzgerald brings little self-reflection, depth, or perspective to these experiences. I’m not a puritan by any means, but the idea of being paid 300 dollars to be in a porn movie is appalling to me. Fitzgerald raises no questions about what might be objectionable or distasteful about exploitation of this type.
The last chapter is probably the best: here he talks about his father’s abuse, the neediness of his mother, and how his family, including half-sisters and cousins, are still working to grow and heal. His parents, like him, have followed a long, slow path of coming to terms with the past and themselves.
In a review of the film Tar in The New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith argues that millennials have managed to hold people (like Lydia Tar) to account for unethical behavior. They have determined that “No middle-aged person should use any young adult as an instrument or tool, sexually or otherwise.” This is a good thing. But “the holiness of always being the injured party” as Maya Angelou aptly puts it, easily becomes a form of self-indulgence. Hugo longs for a life “the world will never let you have until the town you came from dies inside.” But it isn’t so easy to let the town we come from die.
Ed Meek is the author of High Tide (poems) and Luck (short stories).