By Jamie Iredell
Civil Coping Mechanisms
Reviewed by Amber Nicole Brooks
The first sentence of Jamie Iredell's Last Mass, "I am a Catholic," did not surprise me, but it did set a tone of recognition and examination that persists throughout the book. Upon approaching Last Mass, I had already enjoyed Iredell's collection of essays I Was A Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac, which is full of self-deprecating humor and roguish tales of unhealthy recreational activities of epic scale. Also, the book is wrought with introspection and a subtle transformation narrative: from lost debauchery to happy marriage and parenting, despite the perplexing and wondrous and hard things one must endure as an adult. Last Mass is not that book; it is entirely a different thing, a more fermented and even more salient thing.
Last Mass is at once a history and a memoir, an examination of history through an un-apologetic personal lens. But also, it is an examination of Iredell's personal history.
At first, the prose may feel disjointed, as Iredell introduces the Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra, his own Catholic childhood, his drive to a small cabin in the north Georgia mountains, and horrid acts of the Inquisition. However, the narrative is not, in fact, disjointed. It is, instead, an ambitious look at the undertaking of two journeys: that of a priest and that of a writer. The writer's journey is not only writing about his subject, but reconciling his own past. The past heavily informs the writer's present process.
Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra was born in 1713 in Petra, Mallorca, and ultimately became a comisario of The Holy Office of the Inquisition, founding nine Catholic missions in California, Iredell's childhood home. Now in Georgia, Iredell writes:
I drove en route for a one-bedroom cabin set off a lonely road from a remote highway in the north Georgia mountains where I'd have no cell phone reception. The cabin came with a mini-fridge, a shower and kitchen sink, a twin bed, a desk upon which I'd perch my computer, and the chair in which I'd sit to write. The windows looked out on a swath of mixed evergreen and deciduous forest that, in the duration of my stay would blend into a kaleidoscopic meld of green and the yellow, orange, and red of fall.
Of the other journey, the journey that it is the writer's task to capture:
In Father Fray Francisco Palou's Life and Apostolic Labors of the Venerable Father Junípero Serra he writes of his learning of Father Serra's desire to set out for North America: the walls of the cell were light gray and bare save for a crucifix fixed to the wall above the father's plain plank cot shoved into a corner. A small stool and a table pushed against another wall; a volume of The Little Flowers of Saint Francis lay upon the table. Father Palou confessed to his Prelate his desire to mission the heathen, if only God would give him a companion. Father Serra's eyes squinted; tears dribbled down his pale and sickly face. He grasped Father Palou's shoulders. "I, too, have the desire to leave for America, and I have just now been praying that should it be the will of God, a companion would join me."
And of the hardship that will befall the psyche of the writer:
I'd set for myself this goal: I would write. But not just write—I'd write a book about a seventeenth century Catholic friar and missionary. I was dumb enough to believe that if I couldn't accomplish this while in that mountain cabin I was a failure.
In this, one can see both journeys, those of the priest and the writer, are journeys each has set upon on his own, a burden he has placed upon himself. Through the discovery of the historical narrative, through the examination of Father Serra's arc, Iredell also conducts a personal audit of sorts, a meta-examination of the writer and his motives, the writer and his path, unavoidably his past. That is, through the study of his subject, the writer must also study himself. Through the study of the history of his subject, his own history emerges in scenes and memory. In these scenes, Iredell has a knack for rhythm and apt analysis:
When I finally fulfilled the Sacrament of Holy Reconciliation, I recited for Father Scott my sins. I lied. I beat up my sister. I stole a toy from my brother. I did not confess to Father Scott all of my sins. I thought about sex. I lied. I touched a girl's butt at school. I lied. In fact, I am a tremendous liar. There are some things you cannot tell a priest.
Iredell's personal audit is not unlike the Inquisition which he chronicles: Father Serra's work to save the indigenous "heathens," poor Maria Pasqualas who is accused of witchcraft and forced into a false confession.
In following the writer on his multiple paths, Iredell gives readers direction with carefully chosen white space—our cue to know we are moving from one topic to the other. The narrative is an excavation of sorts, a dusting off and piecing together.
In addition to these two stories, of Father Serra's missionary work and its impact on what we now call California, and Iredell's reclusive time in north Georgia attempting to write a book about it, Iredell revisits his Catholic childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Having absorbed the popular culture of his generation, comparisons playfully sneak into the prose: Star Wars, Journey, 1984, the film Snatch, Jaws, Saturday Night Fever, and Harry Potter. That is to say, there are threads within threads, just how a string is made of thinner threads twisted together. Two of these threads are, namely, film and bears. The reader moves in and out of history, the personal, and cultural icons. Bears walk on and off set. Bears become important.
These intersections of seemingly disparate topics align to create prose that is artifact as much as it is record.