Book Review: Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons
Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox by Greg Fitzsimmons (Simon & Schuster, $25, 9781439182697/1439182698, November 9, 2010)
Standup comic, writer and radio personality Greg Fitzsimmons stumbled on a cache of letters that his mother saved from his childhood and teenage years. Eagerly browsing through what she had deemed worth saving, he discovered the collection contained every last bad report she had ever received about him, starting with his preschool teacher’s ridiculous complaint that he was unable to wiggle (the inability to wiggle should have tipped them all off that this was TROUBLE in short pants). Instead of burying this hoard of rebukes testifying that he was trouble every place he set foot, Fitzsimmons uses them as prompts in this merciless and hilarious memoir of his pugnacious early years and coming into his own as a comic. Humiliating craziness is recounted; blame is placed with acid zingers that define his style; and the incontrovertible evidence is laid out in the original letters and family photos.
“Raised by Irish parents from the Bronx, my culture was about short fuses, long grudges and zero tolerance for giving in,” Fitzsimmons states in an emotionally complex portrait of his father who epitomized that culture–fierce, funny, inconsistent and scarily intimidating. When those bad reports arrived in the mail, Greg never knew whether his father (Bob Fitzsimmons, a popular talk-show host on New York City radio) would find them infuriating (leading to a hiding for little Greg) or funny (leading to a laugh-in by the whole family). Extreme mood swings and alcoholic rages were, to be sure, balanced by gales of laughter over whatever was handy to mock, but home was a breeding ground for Greg’s hate and rage, which he would later “channel in a productive manner [in] drunken, smoke-filled stand-up comedy clubs.”
Rebelling against a bullying patriarch was a full-time job for Greg as an adolescent. He began drinking seriously at 13 and, despite his self-described small-and-scrawny size, was always in fights. A typical exchange with his parents at that time: “Greg, get off the roof, you’re drunk!” as he ignored their orders. The key to his survival was leaving home. After backpacking in Europe, he enrolled in Boston University. Never a dedicated student, Fitzsimmons discovered his passion in Boston–to stand in front of a crowd daring him to make them laugh when the looks on their faces said, “You loser, you can’t even get us to crack a smile.”
He recalls, “In Boston, they’d rather see a fistfight than a comedy show.” Once he gave them both in a performance that earned a standing ovation from a really tough audience. “For me being funny was always in reaction to somebody telling me what to do,” he confesses. That would be Dad, who died young at 54, yet still looms large, as a model and a warning, for his son.–John McFarland
Shelf Talker: A merciless and hilarious memoir of surviving a domineering father to turn hate and rage into comedy.