A REVIEW OF
Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional
By Isaac Fitzgerald
Hardback, 256 pages
Writing, reading, storytelling proves salvation in rollicking confessional
By Jay Wiener
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
Famous first lines include Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground”: “I am a sick man…. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.”
Issac Fitzgerald’s “Dirtbag Massachusetts: A Confessional” (Bloomsbury) might displace Dostoevsky: “My parents were married when they had me, just to different people.”
Fitzgerald recognized early that his origin mirrored the start of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”. Anyone literate and imaginative could mine it. “Even from a young (too young?) age, I knew what a great opening line I had in ‘My parents were married when they had me, just to different people.’ I had been read so many books, heard so many opening lines, that those were the shapes I thought and spoke in. Everything was books; or no, wait, everything was stories.”
Fitzgerald’s conception could create innumerable plot lines. It destroyed two marriages, allying individuals lacking impulse control. The misfortune defined Fitzgerald’s life and disrupted others.
“Our family tree isn’t so much a tree as a thicket. My sister is my father’s daughter, but not my mother’s. My brother is my mother’s son, but not my father’s. Their union—and my birth—had robbed my half-sister of her father and my half-brother of his mother. It had also given me two half-siblings whom I loved wholly.”
The parameters provide for riveting reading. My upbringing and those of my peers in Jackson were inconceivably idyllic, more resembling that of idealized siblings Dick, Jane and Sally in midcentury primers than those of many Americans. Fitzgerald admits that everyone thinks that his or her childhood is typical. “I didn’t know my experience was any different from the way other children grew up” notwithstanding the genteel poverty of parents living in reduced circumstances because of the adultery that undermined their aspirations.
Fitzgerald’s mother was a minister’s wife, and his father—the first in his family to attend college—sold textbooks, before they met in divinity school. Fitzgerald states “I believe it was my mother’s only affair. I know it wasn’t my father’s. They would tell their spouses they were going on spiritual retreats—then abscond to the White Mountains in New Hampshire to spend time with one another…
“My mother would eventually break it off….
“My father, not new to this game, talked my mother into one last trip to the mountains.
“… I know that both my parents were using birth control during this trip and that despite their precautionary measures I was conceived on top of a mountain….”
Fitzgerald escaped the confusion and consequences derivative of his parents’ lapses. Fitzgerald’s most conspicuous coming of age challenge was performing in pornographic films, after which his backsliding decreased.
Fitzgerald’s redemption was erudition: “My parents’ faith in literature was as strong as their faith in Catholicism; maybe stronger. No matter what else we didn’t—couldn’t—have, my parents surrounded us with books. Our apartment was bare save for milk crates overflowing with novels and plays and history books and collections of Shakespeare and, of course, the Bible. Stories matter to my family. My earliest memories are of my parents reading to me. Every time we moved, they always left our hand-me-down chairs and rickety tables on the curb, knowing they could get cheap furniture elsewhere. But the books were packed away in boxes and stuffed into whatever old, rusted car the family was driving that year.”
Literacy allowed Fitzgerald to land a full scholarship to attend prep school—escaping class bias in education. The advantage allowed matriculation to George Washington University. Fitzgerald’s subsequent trajectory was “two steps forward and one step backwards” before finding salvation as an insightful intellectual.
“Dirtbag, Massachusetts” is as engrossing as a well-constructed film while offering a wonderful window into another’s existence. Few books deliver the delectable sweet spot that “Dirtbag, Massachusetts” does.
Jay Wiener is a Jackson attorney.