Isaac Fitzgerald Talks Dirtbag, Massachusetts; Tattoos; and Olive Garden Knockoffs
There’s a certain sadness that afflicts the men of Massachusetts. Call it seasonal affective disorder, call it the Curse of the Bambino. Either description is probably at least partially accurate. I feel it in myself sometimes, but whatever it is, it predates me. It didn’t start with Patriot’s Day, or the helmet catch, or the day Dukakis lost. My father has it; my grandfather had it; my great-grandfather had it; and though you’d never know it from talking to him, Isaac Fitzgerald, a man Hoda Kotb has called bubbly and effervescent, has it. In his latest release, Dirtbag, Massachusetts, Fitzgerald comes to terms with the feeling that many Boston Irish Catholics before him have tried and failed to either articulate or repress.
As I’ve gone back and forth between rereading Dirtbag and writing this profile, I haven’t shaken the similarities between personal essaying and karaoke. It may sound like an abstract comparison, but for a moment, consider their similarities: 1.) They are imperfect art forms, i.e., at their worst, they can be frustrating, embarrassing, or ruefully self-indulgent. 2.) We may not participate in them for fear of our friends’ reactions. 3.) We’re only as good as the words in front of us. 4.) The measure of someone’s talents is their ability to continue even when they don’t know the words.
This is where Isaac shines. There is redemption within the pages of Dirtbag, Massachusetts, but at no point does he claim to know how it’s achieved. Like the rest of us, Isaac is still figuring out what it means to be himself. It’s this uncertainty, he says, that separates Dirtbag from other memoirs.
“I’m only thirty-nine. I started writing this when I was thirty-five. Some memoirs are like, ‘Here’s my whole life.’ I’m kind of writing this one in the middle of it. The book doesn’t end with some nice bow tied around it. It’s an ongoing conversation. Who knows how I’m going to feel about this book when I’m forty-five? But right now, I’m really glad I wrote it when I did.”
The book is branded as a confessional, a choice Isaac made after deciding it would be ill-defined as a memoir or essay collection. Though the book’s raw and honest tone has struck a chord with readers, it wasn’t his initial intention to write something so revealing.
“The project originally started as essays,” he said. “I didn’t expect to write so much about my childhood. I thought every essay would be a view on something in pop culture with a little bit of me in there but mainly focused on the pop culture element. But as I started writing some of the essays, I was like, ‘There are ten paragraphs about my dad here. I wonder what that’s about.’ Eventually, I called my publisher and told her the book might be more about my childhood, and she said, ‘Yeah, I’ve been waiting eighteen months for you to figure that out.’”
Over twelve chapters, Isaac chronicles his life across two countries and four states—five if you include D.C. Now living in New York, where he’s spent more than a decade, he’s had time to reflect on what it means to be at home, a once nebulous concept. When I asked how he’d define it now, he grinned and presented the knuckles that served him so well in his teenage fight clubs. Written across them is the phrase “Come Home.” The tattoo is just one from the score he’s accumulated over the years.
“For a long time, I wanted to be one of those people who says, ‘Wherever I lay my head is home,’” he said. “But my idea of home has really changed, especially in the last year. Now, it’s about community. It’s far more about honesty and relationships than a place.”
Living in New York has also granted Isaac more consistency as he lives as a full-time writer. Through his twenties, Isaac spent time as a campaign staffer, an international smuggler, and a begrudging Buca di Beppo employee before finding his way to writing. While the suspense and squalor of Isaac’s youth offered their share of intrigue, some of the more profound moments of the book lie in his reflection upon the mundane, quotidian things you do in a day just to prove you exist.
The book’s penultimate essay—one of the shorter entries in the collection—is ostensibly a story about haircuts, but it quickly turns into a parable on self-discovery and the relationships involved. It’s a fitting representation of Dirtbag’s whole ethos. The book covers a lot of ground, but it isn’t necessarily about all those things. The deeper meanings can be far more layered. The book’s true subjects, Isaac says, come down to two things.
“This is a story of hope and forgiveness. My whole life, I told myself that I’d forgiven my parents. In the past, I had this mentality of, ‘Oh, don’t sweat it.’ It was my therapist that pointed out that real forgiveness comes from facing something and talking about it. I spend so much time trying to arrive at a place of real forgiveness, and I don’t think I do by the end of the book. There’s still the hope that I continue to have these conversations and face this stuff. I let my mom read it before it was published, and we’ve been talking about it for almost a year now. What’s wonderful is I can say, now that I’m a year into the future, that what I hoped would happen did happen.”
Isaac is signed on for his next project, titled American Dionysus, with a tentative release date of sometime in 2025. In it, he will retrace the steps of John Chapman—Johnny Appleseed—as he planted orchards in the northeast. Inspired by the work of Bill Bryson and Cheryl Strayed, the book is a marriage of Isaac’s love of walking and New England heritage. He hopes to begin writing in “the thaw,” his term for that ambiguous point in the spring when you start seeing peoples’ calves again. The process may draw him away from home, but I’m sure he won’t feel it as long as the trail has barstools and conversation.
By Rory Grady