Dan Savage is the most prominent activist for gay rights in America. Through his nationally syndicated advice column, Savage Love, and the wildly successful It Gets Better Project, Savage provided a funny, empathetic face to the struggle for equality. Most of Savage’s readers are straight, but his work provides a guide to all sexualities, sex practices, and relationships. He’s usually acclaimed for his no-nonsense style and (mostly) open mind, but many of his proponents forget just how good of a writer he is.
American Savage: Insights, Slights, And Fights On Faith, Sex, Love, And Politics is everything a longtime reader of Savage would expect: a series of hilarious, often touching, essays that deal with sexuality, monogamy, religion, gun rights, and Savage’s family. This isn’t a book for the uninitiated; the style is lewd and playful from the start, jumping right into the aforementioned topics. It might be considered a failing that the book doesn’t try to reach out to unfamiliar readers, but Savage knows his audience and has no interest in gaining new converts. Most of the arguments he makes in American Savage have been spelled out in Savage Love, though not at this length.
Luckily, not everything’s a retread. The essays about Savage’s personal life, especially those about his mother, are a nice change of pace from the chapters criticizing the Pope, or explaining the benefits of being “monogamish” instead of monogamous. Savage is routinely hilarious, but he can also pack a wallop. From his mistakes at parenting, to the death of his mother, he manages to remain emotionally candid without falling into melodrama. The scene at his mother’s deathbed, in particular, is heart-wrenching, a perfect depiction of a woman at the end and the family gathered around her. The chapter comes as a bit of a surprise, after all the discussion of Rick Santorum and leather expos, but shows how Savage can write cogently about anything.
If there’s a problem with American Savage, it’s too eclectic. Juxtaposing intensely emotional scenes with frank, hilarious talk of sexuality creates a kind of whiplash. Savage writes about the topics on his mind, and each essay has plenty of examples of his candor and wit, but as a whole American Savage doesn’t mesh. The only thing connecting these disparate topics is Savage’s own personality, and while he’s incredibly winning, he doesn’t show enough of himself to create a through-line.
American Savage has enough in it for two equally interesting books. One is a series of discussions on sexual acts, politics, and the slow progress of gay rights in America. The other is an emotional biography of his life growing up in the closet and his relationship with his parents (and his mother in particular). He’s done both before: the former in Skipping Towards Gomorrah and the latter in The Kid. In American Savage his own personal biography and his role as activist get mixed around a little too much. It’s not totally surprising that this happens, though. Savage probably doesn’t make such a distinction when he thinks of himself.