Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Shot, Chaser: Isaac Fitzgerald's "Dirtbag, Massachusetts"

I've been a fan of Isaac Fitzgerald for a long time. This isn't a brag, but since so much of his memoir, a collection of inter-woven essays, is concerned with storytelling I feel like I have to start somewhere. I met Fitzgerald at the Association for Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Washington D.C. in 2011 the same weekend The White Stripes broke up. Issac was working the table for The Rumpus, which back then was an edgy anti-literary online publication; think The New Yorker if it were born in Kerouac's San Francisco (for "the mad ones" as Fitzgerald describes in "The Armory"): not yet fully bulldozed by tech money, the San Francisco I fell in love with ... got the bay boats, the late nights, the food and nightlife clustered with the hills of Chinatown and North Beach. The docks down by the water and, merely a bridge away, all the wilderness you could ever want. 

They sold mugs that said WRITE LIKE A MOTHER FUCKER on them, which I would later learn was a soundbite by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and former Rumpus columnist. I was hooked, not just by the brash don't-give-a-fuck-ness of it all, but because The Rumpus had the world's best front man in the universe cheering them on: Isaac Fitzgerald. I wanted to be a part of a literary world where that guy was the face of your publication, and that publication was in San Francisco.   

So, I moved to San Francisco. Here's me approximately one week after arriving in California, asking a passerby to take my picture like a fucking dork.


Dirtbag, Massachusetts came out this summer and I was immensely excited. Finishing my dissertation butting up against starting a new job and a continued long-term job search and buying a house and moving and having a baby and moving and so on and so on really interrupted my time to read for leisure. I'd even said at the onset of the pandemic I'd at least have time to read (which I instead spent playing the DOOM video game franchise - more on that, eventually). Grad school more or less killed me as a reader. I thought for sure this book would bring be back; it landed on our door step in the high heat of a dogshit hot summer, what better way to relax during baby's nap time than a cold beer and this book.

Well, it turns out I didn't have the infinite time off that I'd hoped for (looking for a house, I somehow forgot, is time consuming; course prep, I somehow forgot, is time consuming; playing DOOM 3, I forgot, is time consuming). But I also had a little reservation with the book: a quick glance at the table of contents revealed to me that I had already read previously published essays in the book! What a rip off!
This put me off, at first, so the book sat. Then school started. Then I got covid, then ... you know how it goes. Fast forward to winter break, the beautiful dust jacket gunning me down. Dirtbag, Massachusetts giving me puppy dog eyes from my bookshelf. I scoop it up and dive in and, suddenly, the weekend - and book - are over.

What hadn't been previously published are essays that talk about family, depression, Boston, rural New England, lots of pained reflection on Catholicism and ways to scrounge some personal spirituality from the mess the church made of itself; drinking, friendship, taking risks, vulnerability, storytelling. The book also does a wonderful job addressing "guy issues," which feels really stupid to type, but was a core theme in the book. Sexuality, body image, antiracism, are all presented from a thoughtful perspective that all-too-often is bullied into not being thoughtful at all. For a Dirtbag, Fitzgerald checks his privilege, reflects on his cis-het perspective, and white male readers are better for it, I think.

But, the best 'pitch' on a book so generous it doesn't need a pitch: its a series of stories that are all about, or honor, storytelling, shared eagerly by a guy who so badly wants to tell you his tales. 

Fitzgerald will tell you stories about wonderful and odd people ("the mad ones") at Zeitgeist Bar in San Francisco's Mission District (yes, I drank many beers there), he'll tell you about his time doing secret agent shit (for good! not evil!) in Burma. He'll tell you about climbing a mountain and somehow the mountain is the smallest character in the essay!

It is funny, and charming, direct and poignant. I won't spoil the ending, but Fitzgerald fixates on the perfect opening to a story (which he opens the book with) and the closing essay, "My Story" so beautifully rhymes with the beginning and this fixation. It sucked all the air out of the room I was reading in, but not in a suffocating way. 

Make the mistake I did: read those four essays. If you like 'em, grab Dirtbag. If you like it, let me know and we can get some beers and talk about it. If you don't like it, let me know and we can get some beers and talk about it. Either way, let's try to tell each other more stories more often.

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