Saturday
Jul262014

I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac

By Jamie Iredell


 

Future Tense Books
November 2013
978-1892061461

Reviewed by Nicole Sheets


 

In her recent book The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit tells of Peter Freuchen, a twentieth-century Arctic explorer. In 1923, a blizzard catches Freuchen while on a mission to retrieve supplies. Solnit describes how Freuchen digs a hole, climbs in, and covers the mouth with his sled and a sealskin. Later Freuchen discovers that the buildup of snow and ice has trapped him in his shelter. Solnit explains: "At a loss for a tool he shat, fashioned a tool from his own excrement, waited the little while it took to freeze solid, and then used it to chip away at the ice." With this, and the slow, persistent push of his own breath, Freuchen frees himself, though not without serious damage to his extremities.

I thought of Freuchen while reading Jamie Iredell's I Was A Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac. Iredell's essay collection is many things, including a kind of survival guide, depicting distress and offering ways out.

Some of Iredell's essay titles have the ring of self-help but in a minor key, blending the earnest and the ironic. In "One Way to Survive an Abusive Relationship" and "What It's Really Like," Iredell presents an unvarnished look at the mental and corporeal effects of "coke-and-booze-fueled romps" or other excesses. In "Never Pay for a Cab this Way if You Can Help It," Iredell informs us casually that "the story I want to tell is about the second time I tried to kill myself"; he relates how he escapes from a hospital, intends to head home, but ends up walking, unwittingly, for a long time, in the wrong direction. Iredell doesn't diminish the seriousness of these situations, but from a vantage point of later adulthood, he's alive to their dark humor, too.

You can sense Iredell's glee in packaging a cautionary tale in self-improvement's clothing. "13 Steps to Becoming a Barslut, and What Happens Afterwards" and "A Brief, Depressing, Hilarious, Disgusting History with Pickup Lines" serve up tragicomic vignettes that edify and entertain.

Iredell neither tries to expunge earlier deeds nor glorifies a wild youth. Rather, he takes a tougher and richer path. "I'm still trying to put out the light that shines on this part of my past," he claims. "But I don't think I have the strength to shatter it against a bare wall. Maybe it's better if it shines, if dimly, a light in a receding tunnel, and I'm on my way out the other end." These essays affirm that nothing is wasted, in writing or in life. A conversion, a pledge to get one's act together, need not be a disavowal of the person one has been.

Iredell's book also makes me think of Freuchen's poop-hammer because both stories eschew an easy moral or takeaway point. One could say, for example, that Freuchen's experience reminds us that for many of our problems, we already have the answer inside of us. (Solnit, of course, says nothing like this. But my mind—shaped in no small part by evangelical devotional literature and inspirational posters—readily goes there.)

I was impressed by Iredell's derring-do. As with learning to ski jump or to bake a soufflé, writing about feelings, especially feelings of romantic and familial love, doesn't leave a huge margin for error. Though several of the essays examine turbulent times, Iredell sets them down in a quiet place, often with references to his wife and daughter. Such a move assures us that the writer of these essays turned out OK.

Such a move happens at the end of "One Way to Survive an Abusive Relationship," when Iredell recounts, "I joined eHarmony, and there I met the woman who would become my wife. And once I knew I was falling in love with her, I knew that I'd never snort another line of cocaine, that I'd never suck on another Camel." Could this easily tip into the squishy and sentimental? Yes. Does it? No, not quite. Iredell's already established his ethos as one who, after several crashes, has earned the right to a soft landing.

There's real heart in this book, which you might not expect from a title like I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac, the mother of all titles (and modifiers which Iredell breaks down more or less in that order.) The titles in the collection are an antidote to sentimentality; they shove out their elbows, command attention, take up space, create suspense, and assure us of the author's badassery.

Iredell's warm feelings don't come at the expense of robust ideas. He can write with great affection about his wife and daughter, and also posit his thesis that superheroes offer a mythology to bind many different cultures. Iredell rails against the tyranny of Disney princesses (preach it, brother Jamie!). He gives voice to overlooked, under-articulated experiences. In the brash "FAT" at the start of the collection, Iredell spots a lacuna in which "there's little talk by fat guys about being fat guys, and hardly anything at all about fat guys working their fat asses off not to be fat."

One of the smartest, most heartfelt essays in the collection is "Dear Kinsey," an epistolary essay for Iredell's daughter who's two at the time of publication. On the scaffolding of his responses to Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, Iredell presents his views on love, sex, women's roles, wishes for his daughter, and pre-emptive apologies for any awkwardness that may transpire between his writing this and her reading it.

If Iredell's book is something of a survival guide, it's one that often exceeds its form. It bursts into story, into—let's be clear—a love story that's worth telling many times over.