Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Tuesday, May 10, 2022: Maximum Shelf: Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional

Bloomsbury Publishing: Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional by Isaac Fitzgerald

Bloomsbury Publishing: Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional by Isaac Fitzgerald

Bloomsbury Publishing: Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional by Isaac Fitzgerald

Bloomsbury Publishing: Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional by Isaac Fitzgerald

Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional

by Isaac Fitzgerald

"My parents were married when they had me, just to different people" sets the tone for Isaac Fitzgerald's gritty and humorous memoir about his escape from the town that gives his book its name, Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional, and his hardscrabble search for his place in the world.

In 10 essays, the author consistently exposes the realities of his childhood while coming to terms with who he is and why he is. Fitzgerald's opinion of the world was fomented early on by his parents' love of literature, their Catholic faith and an apathetic view of worldly possessions. Whenever they had to move, their book collection took priority over furniture. Attending multiple weekly church services was mandatory, but so was reading to little Isaac from The Hobbit and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Fitzgerald refers to himself as "a child of passion!... a mistake in human form, a bomb aimed perfectly to blow up both my parents' lives," because his parents had separate marriages, each of which had already yielded a child, before their coming together. Ironically, they met in divinity school, "a pretty funny way to start an affair." As a consequence, they abruptly found themselves with no home and zero support from either set of parents. Bouncing around South Boston, from a teacher's cramped apartment to a homeless shelter and eventually to low-income housing, sounds like a nightmare for a child, but Fitzgerald remembers these residences fondly: "I was poor but cared for... my parents were good to each other and me, nobody told me I was supposed to be miserable."

"Everything went to shit when I turned eight years old," he writes. Getting mugged at gunpoint rocked his world, and his parents decided city life was no longer a good thing for their family. His father remained in Boston for work, but Fitzgerald and his mother relocated to a small rural town in North Central Massachusetts, to a drab house next door to his disapproving grandmother. The move was a cold slap in the face: "We brought our poverty with us. We went from city poor to country poor."

Rumors of his father's infidelities back in Boston and witnessing his mother's botched attempts at suicide led eighth-grader Isaac to smash a fellow student's nose with a math book. School suspension followed the incident, but instead of seeing a typical delinquent, Fitzgerald's teachers saw an intelligent student with a troubled home life. They banded together to push him toward boarding school, with a full scholarship. It's a pivotal moment in Fitzgerald's world, heretofore fraught with solo drinking, drug experimentation, teenage sex and a bout of bare-knuckle fighting inspired by the movie Fight Club. Boarding school offered an immediate deterrent from a clichéd pathway to incarceration or early death. Trading his poverty-stricken, small-town school life for a more academic, regimented system offered new and exciting opportunities. Some of the shiny educational possibilities included drugs like Adderall, Ritalin, Glade (yes, the popular air freshener), but Fitzgerald thrived in boarding school. The constant family drama became an out of sight, out of mind situation. His peers were posh. The drugs were free and generously shared, but more importantly, Fitzgerald's mind was finally allowed to bloom. Intellectual challenges were plentiful. Wealthy students embraced him and broadened his world perspective with music. His meager existence became a life of possibilities.

There's plenty of resonant moments throughout this memoir, but in one of the more chilling passages, naïve, 12-year-old altar boy Isaac is confessing his sins to his Catholic priest and trying to make sense of an incident with an older girl: "My confessions crash against him and then wash away. Until I mentioned Ashley. Here the looming silhouette straightened. 'Go on,' the priest said." Not long after that exchange, the Boston Globe published an exposé about the very priests Fitzgerald interacted with regularly. Only after the story of priests molesting young boys made headline news did it dawn on him how close he had come to being a victim himself. Fitzgerald's proximity to what had happened changed his thinking on religion and led him to wonder how much his staunchly religious parents knew about what was going on at their church. Escaping his toxic environment and coming to terms with his childhood became mandatory for survival.

Transitioning from a Boston altar boy to bartending in San Francisco, distributing supplies to the poor along the Thai-Burmese border, an acting stint in porn movies, writing children's books and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro isn't the typical path to self-discovery, but it has been Fitzgerald's. But perhaps recounting his path to healing can encourage others to find their own trail.

When Fitzgerald generously assigns blame to certain people for what happened along his arduous route to adulthood, he doesn't make the accusations with malice. He's merely stating the facts and recounting how he felt at the moment. There are no annoyingly timeworn parables thrown in readers' faces, either; the author is sharing his story in a genuine attempt to help others with their own journey. The result is equally a balm for the soul and solace for a troubled mind. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis

Bloomsbury Publishing, $27, hardcover, 256p., 9781635573978, July 19, 2022

Bloomsbury Publishing: Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional by Isaac Fitzgerald

Isaac Fitzgerald: Confessing His Way Out of Dirtbag

(photo: Remi Morawski)

Isaac Fitzgerald is the author of the bestselling children's book How to Be a Pirate and co-author of Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them and Knives & Ink: Chefs and the Stories Behind Their Tattoos (winner of an IACP Award). He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian and the Best American Nonrequired Reading. His debut memoir, Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional, will be published July 19 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

What does the title of your memoir, Dirtbag, Massachusetts, mean to you? 

Credit where credit is due, author and friend Jason Diamond came up with the title. I lived many places in Massachusetts growing up, and one of the places I spent my teenage years was a town called Athol, Massachusetts. It was an old mill town, but the mills had long since left--leaving Athol to be one of the poorest towns in the state. That said, I still have a great fondness for the area. Other people in the state? Not so much. I'll give you one guess how other folks in Massachusetts referred to Athol. Anyhow, turns out you can't call your book Asshole, Massachusetts, but on a road trip with Jason Diamond up to Boston a few years back he said, "What about Dirtbag, Massachusetts?" and the name stuck.

Why add the subtitle "A Confessional"?

It's an essay collection but it's also a memoir, and "memoir in essays" felt a little clunky. For a long time there was no subtitle at all, but then I realized how many stories I was putting in this book that I'd never shared publicly before. "A Confessional" hit me one day and I shared it with my editor Nancy Miller at Bloomsbury. I liked how the phrase was a play on two things: a way to describe the writing, sure, but also a confessional is what you call the booth Catholics go to confess in. I was pretty sure Nancy was going to tell me it was too cheesy by half, but she loved it and now it's right there on the cover.

What were your reasons for writing this book? To purge some personal demons? To reach out to others who might be going through what you did and let them know they're not alone?

The latter, for sure. I try to use therapy to purge personal demons, not public writing. But I deeply believe in the power of storytelling when it comes to sharing your pain, missteps, mistakes, and even joy as a way of helping others feel less alone in the world. There's a quote from Alan Bennett's play The History Boys that I think of often: "The best moments in reading are when you come across something--a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things--which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours."

I've been so lucky to read so many books that have helped me better understand the world, and better understand myself. If Dirtbag, Massachusetts can do the same for even one other person, that's all I really want.

The book opens with a great line: "My parents were married when they had me, just to different people." How long did it take you to perfect that opening?

That phrase has been kicking around in my head seemingly forever. It was a quick phrase I could use to convey information in a light, informal way. Almost like a joke, before moving on before anyone asked too many questions. Myself included.

Some of the people in your memoir don't come off in the best light. What was their reaction?

I'm incredibly lucky that my family is supportive of this project. Many people with stories like mine don't even get recognition from their family, let alone understanding. In the end, I hope I don't come off in the best light in this book either. That's part of being human. In a way, it really depends on the lighting, right? But I'm incredibly grateful that many people, my family most of all, understand what I'm trying to accomplish with this book. That everyone is capable of growing and changing and--maybe, if we're lucky--forgiving.

Your account of drug use as a kid is frank and honest. But huffing Glade? What were you thinking? 

The easy answer here is--a lot of kids do drugs. When you're young, you're curious. You learn that something can change your perception of the world and that's exciting, or scary, or a little bit of both. But to dig a little deeper, I can admit that there was a sadness there, too. A need to quiet down the world, if only for a minute. 

So, what was I thinking? That I desperately didn't want to think for a little while.

Discovering the band Hold Steady is a pivotal moment for you. Do you still have any of their music on a personal playlist? What bands or musical artists hold sway with you these days?

I still listen to the Hold Steady constantly. I've actually met the band a few times now, which was exciting for me, and am friends with Franz Nicolay, the band's keyboardist. He's a wonderful writer, too--with a novel out right now called Someone Should Pay for Your Pain. I love all sorts of music now, much different than when I was growing up and could barely get my hands on any albums. I will sometimes play background music but it can't be anything with lyrics in it, I'm too easily distracted. Another favorite that I have to mention, though, is John Darnielle/The Mountain Goats. I was so thrilled when John gave me permission to use some of his lyrics for my book's epigraph. He's also a tremendous writer, by the way, with a book out right now called Devil House

Your life path has taken many turns. What do you think helped you most along the way? Therapy? Traveling outside your geographical area? Meeting new people?

All of those things and many others. At the core, though, is my belief that people can change. That we are all put on this earth to grow. To stay moving, and to stay curious about the world--and about ourselves. So, yes, therapy is a huge part of that for me. The same is true of education and travel and reading. Meeting new people is absolutely one of my favorite things. So yes, to all of that. In the end, I'm grateful that my life has taken as many turns as it has, and I'm looking forward to all the turns still coming down the road. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis

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