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Survival stories in ‘Dirtbag, Massachusetts’

A childhood of privation and chaos, and what came after

Isaac Fitzgerald starts “Dirtbag, Massachusetts” the way he starts conversations about his childhood: “My parents were married when they had me, just to different people.”

He knows it’s a zinger and also a glib throwaway line that can deflect serious probing from casual acquaintances. But Fitzgerald, author of “How to Be a Pirate” and a frequent book-recommending guest on the “Today” show, opens his introspective yet entertaining memoir with this line to admit that after years turning away from dark truths, the time has come to confront them.

Fitzgerald spent his early years in the South End in housing provided by the Catholic Worker, bouncing from Dartmouth Street to Tremont Street to the John Leary House on Massachusetts Avenue. Then he and his mother headed for the hills of North Central Massachusetts, next door to his disapproving grandparents. It was there that his childhood fell apart — at first Fitzgerald and his mother, deeply unhappy and lacking in parent-child boundaries, were alone while his father stayed in Boston to work … and have a lengthy affair. Then his father finally joined the family, bringing his drinking, anger, and violence. Young Isaac’s mother grew depressed and suicidal and he was all too often caught in the middle. He took solace in drugs, alcohol, reckless behavior, and even violence of his own.

The writing is heartbreaking in its simple and straightforward description of the world in which he was trapped: “Later, my father hitting me, not in anger, but after the anger had dissipated and there was nothing left but coldness. Coldness and intention. In the shower, his hands hammering down on my face and naked body along with the water, the shower curtain rod sometimes coming down on me too.”


“I have a memory of my mother trying to stab herself in the stomach with a knife as she collapsed in front of me, crying. The knife sliced through her thick green Champion sweatshirt as I tried to pull her arm away from her body, yelling ‘No!’ over and over again.”


The book — subtitled “A Confessional” — is a memoir composed of essays, some initially published (in somewhat different forms) almost 10 years ago. Perhaps because of this, the book’s most wrenching scenes only come after 200 pages, while in the opening essays about his childhood, Fitzgerald skims over the surface of what he endured. Vital information is scattered throughout — we learn briefly on page 125 that his mother had attempted suicide and discussed it so much “that I got used to it” — and the book’s haphazardness somewhat dilutes our understanding of adolescent Isaac’s emotional turmoil, as well as the self-destructive tendencies of his 20s.

That said, this essayistic approach frees up Fitzgerald to tell long stories, unhampered by the demands of chronology.

Fitzgerald spent much of his 20s in San Francisco and several essays give us a kaleidoscopic view of his time there. One revolves around a bar, Zeitgeist, that became his emotional home and examines why, after a dysfunctional life in his real home, he might find solace among the people there. Another focuses on a particular friendship that formed at Zeitgeist and frayed after Fitzgerald moved on (although that chapter should have followed, not preceded the longer one on the bar itself). And another delves into Fitzgerald’s almost inadvertent dalliance with the world of porn acting and how it helped him better understand sexuality, intimacy, consent, and power dynamics.


The book’s highlight is a 45-page essay titled “Maybe I Could Die This Way.” It starts off with Fitzgerald giving away his motorcycle because he knew he was in trouble after driving 70 miles back to San Francisco blackout drunk from Santa Cruz.

That ride was a warning, Fitzgerald writes, “a mobster visiting and showing you only the most kind and pleasant politeness, saying nothing of import, but chilling you almost senseless with the thought of what might happen should they find it necessary to visit you again.”

Fitzgerald looks back on mental illness in his family and how rarely problems were openly discussed, which made them “infinite and limitless and impossible to decipher or resolve.” After the motorcycle debacle, he seeks a reason to live by volunteering for the Free Burma Rangers, a group helping persecuted minorities like the Karen striving to survive and fight back against their military oppressors by smuggling medical and other supplies into the country from Thailand.

Fitzgerald’s immersion in this strange new world is a riveting read, dangerous money drops offset by scenes befriending young children awaiting eye tests. But he also uses the story to reflect on his own motives for going there — yes, he was doing good and even those who he saw as glory-seekers were helping too, but he was all too aware of his white privilege as he headed back to his safe and comfortable world.


Near the chapter’s end, Fitzgerald revisits that motorcycle incident with a twist designed to make you reflect, both on the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and how we must constantly find new ways to connect and bring meaning to the world. Like every story in “Dirtbag, Massachusetts,” it’s one worth hearing and thinking about, even if, like life, it’s sometimes messy and out of order.


By Isaac Fitzgerald

Bloomsbury, 256 pages, $27

Stuart Miller is the author of “The 100 Greatest Days in New York Sports” and coauthor of “The Other Islands of New York City.”