In “American Savage,” there’s a telling passage on monogamy. 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. I’m not aware of anyone with his degree of public presence who so 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 suprisingly 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. And if you’ve already read multiple times about how the Bible has been used to justify every possible position on every subject, it’s not much different in Savage style. “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, “At a Loss,” 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 it is to think that homosexuality is a “lifestyle” instead of 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 + children. The baby whom Savage and his partner adopted is now 15, opinionated and heterosexual.
In “The GGG Spot” (“good, giving and game” in bed), he takes on Maggie Gallagher, a leader in the fight against marriage equality. Gallagher claims Savage is attacking conventional structures such as monogamy and marriage, but Savage fires back: “Gallagher isn’t serious about strengthening the institution of marriage.” Rather than shaming people and encouraging them to bury their desires, Savage recommends openness and accommodation — for the sake of stable families. “When people are happy with their spouses, when their needs are being met,” he writes, “they’re less likely to cheat, less likely to divorce, and less likely to turn their children’s lives upside down.”
In fact, 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.”
Burr, the former scent critic of the New York Times, is author of the novel “You or Someone Like You” and the nonfiction book “The Emperor of Scent.”
Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics
By Dan Savage
Dutton. 301 pp. $26.95