In his new book, Dan Savage, who has written the sex advice column “Savage Love” for more than 20 years, states, “My husband Terry and I are mostly monogamous. … There are times — certain set and limited circumstances — when it is permissible for us to have sex with others.” That’s representative of Savage’s frankness — startling, disarming, suicidal or courageous, depending on your perspective. He frankly, even cheerfully, offers a contrary view to apple-pie norms. Unsurprisingly, Savage has a reputation as a bomb thrower. American Savage shows why that perception is surprisingly misleading.
Savage is aware of his rep. And he has a ball with it. He quotes Fox News host Mike Huckabee describing him as “unnecessarily rude, vile, and angry.” Then he merrily replies: “Have you seen my husband in a Speedo … ? Rest assured that I’m a happy person, Mike.” And he rips gleefully through the hypocrisy of condemning gay people by selectively quoting the Bible.
But these pyrotechnics are actually where American Savage is least interesting. We’ve heard the traded insults before. American Savage is best when it is most unusual, an extraordinarily personal, deeply felt book about traditional marriage, authentic and healthy religion and a traditional sex life.
The opening chapter is about leaving and then returning — in a sense — to the Catholic Church. Savage uses his journey as a way to comment on his own spiritual life in terms that are refreshingly tender and sincere. “I transferred to a public high school and stopped going to church,” he says. “Then my mother died.” Yes, he eviscerates the church’s hypocrisy, but his message is palpably moral, and his story is ultimately about reconciliation.
Similarly, the chapter “My Son Comes Out” is overtly about how stupid labeling homosexuality a “lifestyle” is when it’s a sexual orientation people are born with, like their handedness. “Anti-gay bigots argue that being gay is a sinful choice that gay people make because our parades look like so much fun.” Underneath, however, is a love letter to the traditional family of two parents and children. The baby whom Savage and his partner adopted is now 15, opinionated and heterosexual.
Reconciliation is at the heart of everything Savage writes and says. He’s not throwing bombs at all. Or rather, if he is, they are bombs aimed at shaking up small minds to extend traditional institutions to people considered outside them. Beneath its often caustic wit, American Savage is on a healing mission. It’s about unification. That effort starts immediately. On the first page, Savage dedicates the book: “For my father, who lives in a red state, watches Fox News, and votes Republican — but loves me and mine just the same.”
Chandler Burr reviewed this book for The Washington Post.