Jamie Iredell’s, I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac, published by Future Tense Books, is a collection of nineteen essays that moves linearly from Iredell’s childhood to his early fatherhood. The pieces in this collection range from personal to intellectual, cultural, and political, and hover primarily over topics of body image, racism, sexism, drug and alcohol use, relationships (the good, the bad, and the ugly), and fatherhood. In fact, fatherhood is the unifying theme to this collection, even if the theme comes up towards the later part of the book; it seems like all the insights, opinions, and perspectives Iredell gives us are coming from an older, wiser, time-to-think-about-the-past sort of perspective, where, as he enters into a new phase in his life, fatherhood, he is confessing his past mistakes, voicing his lessons learned, and advising his young daughter on truths as he has learned them.
My favorite essay in this collection, entitled “Fat,” is also the first essay in the collection, and is probably the most “personal” of the essays. In this piece, Iredell seems to be tearing at the shame and hurt that all overweight children—female and male, Iredell reminds us—experience over their bodies. While Iredell’s voice remains as deadpan as ever (his sentences are often blunt and declarative, and in them, a frank voice comes through, unflinching in its matter-of-factness), he does offer moments of reflection that show his vulnerability, a vulnerability that opens up the essay in such a way that the reader can “feel it” along with him.
I also cannot forget standing in assembly at this same elementary school to pledge allegiance to the American flag, and when I stumbled and stepped on another boy’s foot and he said, “Watch it, fat ass.” The shame and embarrassment that welled up in me must’ve made my chubby cheeks redder than they already were with the freckles that freckled them.
But the essay does not keep beating on only his personal experience to drive the narrative. In this, as in many of his essays, he connects his narrative to cultural critiques. He writes:
And some brave women have talked about what it’s like to be fat, but hardly anyone talks about what it’s like for men. Recent Nike ads feature jogging fat kids—or try this: Google image search “plus-sized male models”—but still, 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.
The essay moves from how fatness played into his childhood on into college, and how it affected his relationships with women. Iredell is calculatingly honest by the essay’s end, describing how he began to starve himself to lose weight, listing the meals and calories he consumed every day. It comes full circle when he mentions his wife and daughter, and how he has made some peace with being fat, writing, “And that is that, plain and simply, I am fat, and I know that, and—I think, or at least I’m thinking right now—that’s okay.” I felt satisfied by the essay’s end, of how it touched upon so many intimate truths about being overweight, and how these truths culminated by the essay’s end to his eventual acceptance, if not emotional, at least intellectual, of his body.
Because there are nineteen essays, and given Iredell’s varying approaches to the essay—personal, intellectual, political—the collection is a bit like a buffet in that most readers will find something to like in it. There is the essay, “Superheroes Are Our Parents. Or. Our Parents Are Superheroes. Or. A review of Chronicle.” which, while grounded in a scene of Iredell watching a movie on an airplane while holding his sleeping daughter, primarily centers upon our culture’s obsession with superheroes and why that obsession may be. This essay seemed to venture into the more academic realm of analysis and critique in the field of superheroes, wandering away from the personal aspect of the essay. Iredell writes, “Roger Ebert, in his review of 2009’s Watchmen, remarked on the modern superhero’s roots in ancient cultures’ mythologies, even down to their iconic accoutrements and their archetypal adventures,” and goes on to say, “Here’s my point: I like superheroes and superhero stories because they are a democratic society’s version of mythology, and are stories about gods, goddesses, demigods, and demigoddesses.” Iredell eventually gets back around to the scene of himself and his daughter on the airplane, but that’s not until the last paragraph, and by then, I’ve almost forgotten that they are there. In this paragraph, he comes back to his relationship with his daughter (as he does in several of the essays), writing, “… I am her Superman, her Batman, her Wolverine, and right now she needs me. And with truth, justice, and in an ethical way, I will not let her down.”
As with many of the essays in this collection, Iredell delivers a balance between personal narrative and cultural critique in his essay, “Jagger.” In this essay, Iredell writes about being one of the few white kids growing up in a largely Hispanic school system. There are honest moments of reflection where Iredell admits to mimicking his peers, trying on their culture’s clothing and speech as a way to fit in, that are juxtaposed to the racism prevalent then and now towards the primarily Mexican population. The essay brings up interesting points about language, and who can call who what with regards to race. Iredell explains that Jagger” refers to a “new arrival” in America, and it can be meant as a term of endearment or as an insult, depending on who’s saying it. Iredell writes:
As a white kid growing up in this environment I somehow knew I wasn’t supposed to call a Mexican a jagger to his face, that it was disrespectful and hurtful … At the same time, I heard Mexican children use jagger to shit-talk other Mexican kids—Mexican kids who were not their friends or relatives … However, this was almost never followed by a fight.
Another major theme in Iredell’s collection is drug use and alcoholism. Some of these essays seem to be simply describing Iredell’s experience while high, while others show how drugs and alcohol fueled some of his more volatile relationships. He writes about these moments in a somewhat nostalgic way, not necessarily moving towards any greater point, but rather, writing the moments in order to remember them, to prove that they, and the people in them, were real. The voice in these essays remind me of what you might hear from a very smart man who has had one too many drinks at the bar, and who has settled in next to you to tell you about a crazy experience he’d had, trying to assemble the pieces as he goes. This is neither a good nor a bad thing—the stories are interesting and Iredell is honest, if not self-deprecating, throughout them. Sometimes the essays end abruptly, and Iredell is left concluding with lines such as these from “What You Can Learn From LSD, Or, A Work of Art Takes More Than Seven Seconds” :
I did not finish what I set out to write that day over the rest of that week or month, or that year. But fourteen years later, here I am, and maybe I’m finishing what I wanted to write that morning, but I didn’t know that this was what I was supposed to write in the first place.
There is also a theme of literature throughout the collection—Iredell recalls many of the books (with impressive accuracy) that he’s read since childhood throughout the essay “What Can Happen To You When You Read.” He gives brief summaries of the books and relates them to what was going on in his life as he read them, moving to the point that books help him survive difficult years. He ends the essay reading to his daughter, stating that one thing that happens when you read is, “You begin teaching this girl at too early an age how to read, because you believe that it’s never too early.”
The final essay of the collection, “Dear Kinsey” Iredell writes a letter to his daughter while evaluating Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. He goes through the various elements of Beauvoir’s feminism, relaying things he agrees and disagrees with, and relating these opinions to Kinsey and how she may approach her own life as a woman. The essay concludes like so many others, focused on his love for his daughter and his wife. He writes:
But when I think about the growing gap between rich and poor in our country and the lines of division that grow sharper between those who have access to equal rights and protections and those who do not, it seems more important than ever that a young woman like you should work to help those in less favorable conditions. I’ve always wanted to be a better man because of my girls, for my girls, for you and your mom, Kinsey. It’s because of love that any of that is possible.
Iredell often comments on the state of political and cultural affairs today, butting them up to his personal narratives, and this example—Iredell giving us his political opinions alongside his intimate feelings and experiences—is particularly demonstrative for how the book, as a whole, works.
There are a dozen or so essays that I don’t have space to cover in this review, but I would encourage readers to pick up the collection to experience its scope. While reading this, I felt a deep understanding of Iredell, as though I were peeking in on his personal journal. The essays at times seem confessional, as though there are things he must get off his chest. There is a lack of literary construction, or “fluffiness,” that gives the collection a depth of sincerity. In his first book of nonfiction, Iredell has shown he is capable of writing across a range of genres, both in an intellectually and emotionally engaging way.
I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac, by Jamie Iredell. Portland, Oregon: Future Tense Books. 210 pages. $25.00, hardcover.
Coleen Muir received her MFA at University of New Orleans and is the recipient of the Svenson Award for Fiction, Samuel Mockbee award in Creative Nonfiction, and the Gulf Coast Creative Writer’s Award in Fiction. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Fourth Genre, Silk Road Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and The Rumpus. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she teaches. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.