Jamie Iredell is the author of the books I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac, The Book of Freaks, and Prose. Poems. A Novel. His writing has appeared in many magazines, among them The Collagist, The Literary Review, The Rumpus, and PANK. He lives in Atlanta where he teaches creative writing.
This is what creative nonfiction can be when it's firing on all cylinders - personal, political, social, and historical all woven together in one clever book-length essay.
I knew Iredell wrote fiction from The Book of Freaks and Prose. Poems. A Novel., but I also knew about his nonfiction I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac. Mind you, I hadn’t had a chance to read any of Iredell’s full-length works, so I was pretty much going on faith.
As a side note, I should mention that I do have a certain Catholic fascination, having been raised Lutheran. That’s part of what drew me in just on my original impression. Lutheranism is only so far distanced from Catholicism, some things having been removed and some left with just the logic behind them removed. It’s confusing, but not as confusing as that first time I went to a Catholic service as a kid and everyone performed without being told, perhaps by secret radio signals or pheromones. In my Lutheran services, you were told exactly when to stand, when to sit, when to open your hymnals. In that Catholic service, everyone just knew.
Anyway, I came to Last Mass expecting certain things. And, true to when I expect things, Last Mass turned out to be much more complex. Memoir? History? Reflection? I’m just going to call it a book and move on from there. After all, in a series of paragraphs Last Mass flips between Iredell’s formative years as a young Catholic in California, the history of Father Junípero Serra (a significant force in the early missionization of California, after having been involved with the Spanish Inquisition), Iredell’s personal problems while trying to write the book, and larger reflections on the Church and world:
Father Palou relates a story that occurred not long before Father Serra’s death: a band of natives he calls the zanjones were reported coming up the Carmel Valley towards the Mission, all of them armed. A detachment of soldiers sent from the Presidio in Monterey came for protection. They were gathered at this time six padres at San Carlos, together there for the eminent founding of Missions San Francisco and Santa Clara. These priests all feared for their lives, but not the blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra. He kept the other priests up all night with his excitement over what he assumed would soon be his death at the hand of murderous heathen. He told them stories to reassure them, but he talked fervently, expectantly, of his death in the service of his Lord.
How did Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus feel while taking Jesus down from the cross? This thirteenth Station—unlucky number for an unlucky man. In Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà—said by some to depict a Michelangelo self-portrait in the male figure holding Jesus’ body (Joseph of Nicodemus)—Jesus seems to grow out of the marble, rock out of rock. Michelangelo abandoned the project, which was finished by his pupil Tiberio Calcagni, a lesser, and today and unknown, artist. Michelangelo’s / Nicodemus’s / Joseph’s face, though carved of solid marble, looks old and soft as old man’s skin, caring for the dead body in his arms.
Wait wait, but I forgot: at the gate stood the first two guards, with submachine guns slung over their shoulders. A third guard in the yard carried a shoulder-holstered nine-millimeter. I knew this was sketchy but I went ahead because I could not walk away at that point. I had to follow through. Inside the cinderblocked cube that was the “store,” on the dirt sat the black and white TV going static and then to picture on a Mexican telenovella. This oddly reminded me of the Playboy Channel on my parents’ TV all those years ago, though now I would certainly not get turned on, and the cocaine would ensure that. The lone lightbulb swung overhead, no shade. Behind the card table the Man sat, this Tony Montana-ish mountain of cocaine piled. I’m not kidding; there had to have been a half-pound of coke piled on that card table. The Man sweat so bad it pooled under his eyes and his knee bounced constantly. He dipped the corner of a credit card into his mountain about every forty-five seconds and that corner disappeared up one nostril, and the next dip up the other.
Iredell interposes the confusion of growing up Catholic in California with the well-intentioned but horrifyingly brutal account of one of the men who brought Catholicism there and helped make it what it is today. He doesn’t attack the Church (in my view), but he certainly doesn’t hide what it has done, or his own shortcomings. He seems to question, and how could he not? He doesn’t appear to be devoutly religious now, but it doesn’t seem like a person raised in the Church ever truly leaves. The Church was a part of shaping who Iredell is just as it was, along with Father Serra, in shaping modern California. Good, bad, or an indeterminable and inseparable mix of the two, its unchangeably part of the modern identity.
The conclusions in Last Mass aren’t heavy handed either. To me, it seemed as if things were too complicated for easy conclusions to be drawn. It’s easy if you separate out what ended up being the willful ignorance of sophisticated cultures and the both intentional and unintentional obliteration thereof, but such a separation is artificial and doesn’t reflect the full reality. Iredell instead seems to present the complexity as complexity so the reader can puzzle over it in its fullness. Last Mass has some great lines, but it’s the structure that I really love. That single arc coming together from those individual differently pointing paragraphs was something I wasn’t expecting, and I love how it comes off. Last Mass kept me right in the moment on every page, engaged without being forced. I’d definitely recommend checking it out.