Jamie Iredell begins his book-length lyric essay Last Mass with a repetitive list of assertions that mimics a liturgical anaphora.
I am a Catholic. I was baptized Catholic as a baby, and mom raised me as such. Dad converted, and became Catholic. My brother and sister are Catholics. Grandma and Grandpa were Catholics. My uncles are Catholic. My uncles’ wives are Catholic. My cousins are Catholics. My aunt’s husband’s family is Catholic. His sister’s names are Faith, Hope, and Charity. I used to feel guilty after I masturbated. I am Catholic.
Iredell recognizes that these assertions form themselves into a spiritual genealogy. Using the linguistic tropes of Catholicism—the anaphora, the cagey metaphors, the call and response—Iredell constructs a world of limits. Statements of faith embed themselves in Iredell’s life with their blood-level rhythms. With this beginning, Iredell’s text becomes a mission to de-mystify the so-called “mysteries” of Catholic faith. By interweaving historic anecdotes, personal experiences, and cultural references, Iredell exposes the biggest, most obvious Catholic “mystery”: Religion is a plot line, a fictitious narrative that follows all the rules of any other fiction.
An important narrative thread in the book is the writing process of Last Mass. Early on, Iredell reveals that this text emerged from a solitary cabin stay within the Georgia mountains—a trip he took specifically to write a book. The book he intended to write, however, was not the current form of Last Mass. He set out to compose a novelistic history of California missionary Father Junipero Serra. Of his original goal, Iredell writes, “I was dumb enough to believe that if I couldn’t accomplish this while in that mountain cabin I was a failure.” This failure produces a fascinating bricolage of stories, alternating between accounts of Serra’s missionary work, recollections of Iredell’s experience growing up Catholic in California, and Iredell’s “present” experience writing Last Mass. Through this commingling of narratives, Iredell strips the epic sheen from Serra’s story, exposing him as a fallible human whose legacy is under construction.
This interweaving of narratives also affords Iredell the opportunity to strategically foreshadow and reveal information. He suggests that certain details will develop, later on. He hints at points where stories will begin to bleed together. For example, the aforementioned opening list is reprised, when later, Iredell writes:
My grandfather converted to Catholicism for my grandmother. My father converted for my mother. My grandfather was a devout Catholic. My father, not so much. Flannery O’ Connor says that the Catholic novelist may not be in tune with the Church, that Catholicism is part of her blood, that the Catholic novelist might not even attend church. My father sounds a little bit like a Catholic novelist, except he doesn’t write novels. The Church was definitely a part of Grandpa’s blood. I would say that Catholicism has worked its way into my blood, too, for better or worse.
With this rewrite of his original genealogy, he reveals his family’s conversion to Catholicism as a conscious construction. This list also plays upon details of Father Serra and his far more brutal historic conversions of Native Californians.
Iredell is brutal in his honesty about himself and in his history of Father Serra’s exploits and the exploitation of natives by Spanish conquerors, including stories of disease, famine, sickness, flogging, torture, pillage, murder, rape, and brutal punishment. Iredell also discusses the more subtle iniquities embedded in these stories, such as the ways Spanish missionaries justified their “civilizing” missions.
The text intersperses these brutal histories with tales from Catholic doctrine as a way to provide context for this crazy mission work. These doctrinal narratives are told alongside other comparable narratives in popular books and movies. Iredell deliberately pulls from less than elevated sources, diminishing their value, emphasizing the ubiquity of these narratives. These sources include Star Wars, The Godfather III (the shitty one,) the Harry Potter series, and Turner and Hooch.
In body, Jesus remains for forty days—so happy to have him returned! Yet so sad, for his family and his apostles who lose their friend, and get him back, only to lose him again. But like all good stories, he remains in spirit… One can read the same basic plot in Roger Spottiswoode’s Turner and Hooch. Police officer Scott Turner (Tom Hanks) is transformed (or converted) by a big, messy, rambunctious Dogue de Bordeaux, who helps him solve a murder. Sacrificing himself, Hooch takes a bullet at the climax and as a result later dies. But he has already impregnated another dog (conveniently provided by the town veterinarian, who likewise conveniently plays Turner’s love interest). Denoument: little Hooches carry on their father’s legacy of annoying Officer Turner. In other words, Hooch lives on through his offspring. Resurrection!
Through these irreverent comparisons, Iredell undermines the legitimacy of stories (religious or not) that present themselves as finished, neat, and packaged. In his description of John Steven McGroarty’s early 20th century work, The Mission Play, Iredell reduces the play to the bones of its structure, illuminating all that it fails to expose, namely narratives about the rape, abuse, and subjugation of Californian Natives. Instead, the text presents a “sentimental epic starring Father Serra as a fiery padre desperate to defend his neophyte women’s honor against secular Spanish authorities.”
The Mission Play: three acts: the Sacred Expedition’s near failure, with its sailors and soldiers dying of starvation and scurvy; the mission’s rise to greatness; and the mission’s fall to ruin in the hands of the newly independent Mexican government. The Mission Play was performed at Mission San Gabriel over 3,268 times to over 200,000 spectators.
Iredell also uses his own testimonial to challenge the mythologies of Catholic faith. He tells stories of childhood awkwardness, his fumbling flirtations, sexual guilt, and knowingly dangerous and dumb decisions. He admits to his readers that during the process of writing this very book, he’s been suffering panic attacks in the cabin. He’s also been drinking his face off each night. In this way, Iredell’s book functions as a confession, an extensive purging ritual, his own “last mass.” Iredell acknowledges this function with a quote from Flannery Connor’s essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer”: “If the Catholic writer hopes to reveal mysteries, he will have to do it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is.”
We are nothing but the story that we choose to tell. We reveal nothing without sharing what we see from where we are. By exposing his experience throughout the creative process, Iredell interrogates writing and religion, the cults of the self-written self.
Through its disjointed, non-linear structure, Last Mass keeps its readers questioning and evaluating all the information they receive. It is a piece of writing with its epidermis peeled back, revealing all the inner channels of its own construction. It is a challenge to the smoothly structured stories that uphold Catholicism and its oppressive narrative.