Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional, a memoir and/or essay collection by Isaac Fitzgerald, is garnishing all the praise. It’s not Fitzgerald’s debut, but it’s probably the one that readers are talking about. The words being thrown around to describe it include gritty, raw, and heartfelt/full of heart/tenderhearted. Not to mention Best Nonfiction. Fitzgerald is also–let’s bring this up–praised for the way his writing about self, um, challenges representations of masculinity. We may or may not get into that. We decided it sounded like a good read.

Jennifer: In these essays, we follow Isaac through childhood into his mid-thirties (he’s still young, by my standards!). He’s a good Catholic boy in Boston. He’s partying in small town Massachusetts with poor kids. He’s out of his fiscal element in boarding school. He’s a college student in D.C., a San Francisco bar regular, a faux-missionary (of the godless variety) in Burma, and a Brooklynite getting a good haircut. These are confessions. We listened to him read his own stories–and I think that’s the way to go. Before I pontificate, Lara, share. What are your thoughts?

Lara: You know I love me a memoir! And when I started seeing this on the bookstagram and hearing the buzz, I knew I wanted to check it out. I’ll start with this: Dirtbag, Massachusetts is not for the faint of heart. As you said, there is his Catholic upbringing (and with that a near- terrible experience with clergy). 

Jennifer: In Boston, so you might get the context.

Lara: There’s the fact that his father and mother were cheating with one another when she got pregnant with him. In fact, he opens with:

“My parents were married when they had me, just to different people.”

They left their respective spouses and got married and the marriage was super dysfunctional (verbally abusive dad, suicidal mother). And this start for Fitzgerald paved the way for him into drinking too much, struggling with his body image, unsure how to make his way in the world, feeling connected to God and disillusioned by the church, forming found family at his favorite bar (The Zeitgeist), and learning to feel good in his skin after working for a time in the adult film industry. 

He gives us A LOT to unpack. 

I appreciated his candor. I was surprised at how much he shared. I appreciated his gratitude for his life experiences that many of us would shudder to have. 

What about you?

Jennifer: Well. . . I’m prepping myself for your response . . . I listened to the bulk of this audiobook on a “writing retreat” with three of my writer-friends, so I was very inundated with all-things-writing. That said, I have nothing bad to say about his writing skills. He’s a good writer. I’ve been quitting too many books, and I felt no inclination to quit this. It’s fully engaging.

I think you raised a great question when we were just talking about Dirtbag. You asked–correct me, if I’m wrong–to what extent can we even judge a memoir? Aren’t we essentially judging someone’s life?

But then what does that even mean? I love David Sedaris’s stuff, but I’ve definitely had friends who dislike him as a person–and I get it, but I’m, like, So what? And then, both of us like Rick Bragg’s All over but the Shoutin’–what is it that we like about it? His life? No? His voice overshadows his life. It’s his voice. Same with Sedaris.

So . . . I’m not necessarily judging his life, but his voice. And I guess I’m a tad put off by the way he neatly packaged each mess in his life with a lesson learned. It smacked–a tad–of inauthenticity to me. The authentic choice, I think, would be to allow for a mess to be a mess. I guess that I don’t want the self-help ending. 

It was probably the essay on his short porn career that got me the most. He tied it up in a bow with some kind of message on the importance of consent. And I’m, like, Seriously, Dude? Let’s not pretend porn is anything other than porn . . . 

You can call me out now.

Lara: I will call you out. I would not choose porn. You would not choose porn. But here’s the thing. Just because you think porn is part of some seedy underbelly of society doesn’t mean that it couldn’t serve a time in his life as a clean start and a clean finish during which he was with a group of performers who were concerned about doing their job in a way that wasn’t degrading–and at the end of the day, the experience allowed him to gain confidence about himself, his body, and his masculinity. 

How do you know your feelings about porn aren’t clouding your ability to see that essay as authentic?

Jennifer: Well, shockingly, this is the first time EVER that we’ve addressed this deeply philosophical issue. Get ready, Lara. We’ve never broached it. I thoroughly believe that there are such things as . . . Moral Absolutes. I don’t decide what’s right or wrong for me. Those things exist outside of me. My belief in a Truth with a Big “T” is exactly why you’ve seen me get so worked up over racism. I think it’s unequivocally and always wrong. Never, ever relative. 

Similarly, this is why I freaked over religious people voting for Trump. I was BLOWN AWAY. Not right. Period. 

Porn? Please

I got body issues. That’s real and authentic. Even his admitting that he rushes to put on a shirt after sex. Got it. Authentic.

Consent with a camera on you?

Um, I don’t know if that really speaks to the issue of body image or consent.

(Who would’ve thought this book would trigger philosophy?)

Lara: I think we are going to disagree on this. Neither of us is as clever as we think we are, sitting here in suburban Phoenix with a history that never even presented us with the kinds of choices he is presented with. That said, you can think it’s wrong or Morally Wrong with CAPITAL LETTERS. We don’t know.  It’s not our place to say. 

Jennifer: I feel the need to defend myself a bit here, if it’s okay. I do think judging others is wrong. I also think it’s okay to have judgments about issues. I think porn, for example, HURTS people. Besides being exploitative and objectifying individuals (as if that’s not enough), it degrades human sexuality. When I assert this, I’m not on any high horse. I’m speaking out as a woman, as a mother of women, and as a sexual being–not to mention as one who (here’s me really on a high horse) as an artist-type with a stake in film and story and narrative. 

Lara: While I appreciate that, and know that the industry has hurt people in it and consuming it. I do think there are people (women even) who are empowered by being in it and consuming it. Maybe there’s such a thing as ethically produced porn? I am not sure.

Jennifer: I just don’t really find a sugar-coated porn story to be authentic. An authentic piece can be all Dirtbaggy — but then tackle the dirt . . . 

What essay resonated most with you?

Lara: That’s tough.  A lot of them struck a chord. It was hard for me to hear the position his mother put him in repeatedly expecting him to bear the emotional burden of his mother’s mental health challenges – and how much she shared with him about her wanting to end her life, that she had considered aborting him (not as a threat, but as a matter of fact statement to a young child…) floored me and made my heart hurt for him. 

Jennifer: I could picture it too. I think he was generous to his mom, revealing her own desperation. 

I actually found the early essay on his experience as an altar boy in Boston to be very good. I think the way children were the victims is tragically revealed here. 

Were you put off by anything?

Lara: Oh sure. That essay was excellent, and it was one I struggled with. I was put off by the story and his later reflection on it about confessing an early sexual experience with a girl and the priest’s behavior/reaction to his confession. The priest seemed eager for Isaac to share intimate details for his own benefit, and that was disturbing. I was put off by some of dumb boy behavior that one of his boarding school classmates engaged in. I will leave it at that. But overall, I felt his stories were candid and compelling, and gave him a voice and opportunity to grow. I love fiction that has character development. If Isaac were the character of this book, I saw a lot of growth. 

Jennifer: So, for some reason, this book really triggers a few important questions:

  1. How does one critique a memoir?
  2. Are there spoilers in a memoir?
  3. How is authenticity determined?

So, to you, I ask: what do you personally value most in a memoir?

Lara: For me, I love stories that highlight resilience. Where you see a person experience hardship, failure, trauma, and are able to grow through that – and not in an unscathed, Hollywood ending kind of way, but in one that shows them surviving, or thriving even, in spite of or because of their experiences. Those stories are the most interesting to me. 

As for the questions, those are good ones. 

  1. I don’t think it’s fair to judge the person’s choices in how they lived their life or shame their choices. I think it’s more about whether or not they successfully told their story in a way that I could believe it, I could see it happening, and I could empathize and learn something new. 
  2. I think there can be spoilers. If you tell me too much about what the person experienced and where they are now, why do I need to read it?
  3. Determining authenticity is probably the trickiest. And it comes back to how connected I feel as the reader to the storyteller. That said, there are really good writers who are probably also really good bullshitters. I never read James’ Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, but that guy convinced THOUSANDS that his stories were true. He even convinced Oprah. You know every now and then a snake can sneak through. 

Jennifer: Well, let me just respond ever-so-briefly. I’m not fully looking for resilience or victory; I’m looking for the wrestling part, I guess. I doubt we’re on the same page here. I like the vulnerability, the self-exposure. I think it can be varied. It can be lyrical, weird (Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood). It can be a beautiful car-crash (Blow Your House Down by Gina Frangello). It can be just plain solid writing with smarts (Born a Crime by Trevor Noah). It can be humiliating (sometimes David Sedaris). 

I think, though, I really admire getting deep down in the dirt, so to speak. Gina Frangello’s Blow Your House Down again. It was all about stuff that I pretty much don’t want to be a part of–but Frangello tackled her own life with such wild talent that she blew my house down. Fierce authenticity, staggering writing. I like a memoir that goes for the jugular. 

I don’t think Fitzgerald did. 

I read Frey years ago. I don’t remember, frankly. Though there is that oft-repeated thing about how fiction can be truer than nonfiction . . . 

So what else have you been reading?

Lara: I have mainly been reading for the various book clubs I am in. I keep saying that I am in too many book clubs, but then they keep picking books I want to read. I gobbled up Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace. I thoroughly enjoyed Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club (the first in a series of Brit mystery lit). Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow was good (but I liked The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry better and can’t wait to watch the film version). And my fellow work teammates and I just read Adam Grant’s Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know and I would say that everyone should read it. Especially if you think you are open-minded (which I thought I was). 

Jennifer: Well, I quit a ton of books. I read and really liked Tyler Merritt’s I Take My Coffee Black. Nice human being. But I loved loved loved Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise. Let me give you the two-second review: It’s over 700 pages long, so there’s that! And ​​I’ve notoriously abandoned books right and left — most famously Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land. But this novel, right here,  is a literary WONDER of epic scope and breadth and IMAGINATION. I’m blown away. It’s a pandemic novel, in a way–but it isn’t. And it’s as much about America as is Philip Roth’s PLOT AGAINST AMERICA or, maybe, THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain. I want you to read it. And I’m currently reading The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles. 

Next Up!

We’re sticking with the memoir genre and will be dissecting Eat a Peach by the James Beard-award-winning Chef, David Chang.


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Want to read more from Jennifer? Check her out at www.jenniferspiegel.com

Want to see what Lara is up to? Stay right here at www.onelitchick.com