Like any classic tragedy, Jamie Iredell’s Prose. Poems. A Novel. is broken up into three acts, in which the troubled hero recounts his life before he moved to Nevada, his life after he moved to Nevada, and his life after that, when he moved to Atlanta. Composed as a series of vignettes, pivotal moments in a troubled man’s peripatetic life, the narrative flits within the gray area between poetry and prose and, while it dispenses with linearity, finally coheres into a portrait of Larry, a fallen high school football star who never quite overcomes his self-destructive habits to live a life full of lasting intimacy and love.
Larry visits cabins, fields, bars, and strip joints peopled by “be-pistoled,” “be-suited,” “bespectacled” ne’er-do-wells fueled by crystal meth, amphetamines, ketamine, mescaline, cigarettes, psilocybin, Chianti, whisky, PBR, Vodka, Jack Beam, Strega, Oxycontin, Crazy Horse, weed, and cocaine with “actual cocaine crushed up into it.” Besides his own downward-spiraling actions, Larry is also troubled by a bear, rattlesnakes, and all kinds of creepy crawlies:
Herds of mosquitoes grazed the alleyways—mosquito-sized vampires—and heaved hordes of citizens above skyscrapers, then dropped the husks of their bodies to Peachtree Street. The hulls of destroyed brick rows lurked underground, and above, fiberglass rocketed into the rain. Hardwood floors lined my apartment, and cockroaches scrawled notes across my chest. With the humidity, I inhabited the inside of a mouth, the space between ass cheeks.
“There was nothing in the way of metaphor about me,” Larry tells us. Fortunately, this isn’t true—his observations are often drenched in carefully crafted metaphor. A lake is a mirror, blood vessels are lightning strikes, tuna cans are shining stars, clouds are saucers, and Larry himself is a “desert rat with a signature.” His similes are even more evident: “Leafless cottonwoods flew past us like enormous hands”; “Cara was like that: skinny as carousel pony poles…”; “The next morning the sun scooped my eyeballs as if they were mounds of ice cream.”
What I enjoyed most about Iredell’s narrative are his lyrical, almost Annie Dillard-like observations of nature, the elements, the landscape. But where Dillard’s evocations are solemn reveries sodden with all kinds of lushness, with prose akin to—[namecheck any American transcendentalist here]—Iredell’s descriptions are prickly, brittle, harboring all kinds of menace and malevolence:
The fog lilts in like a cat—perhaps a bear—as it stalks the coast and harbor, pounces artichoke fields, sinks its claws into the browned hillsides, and the fog’s teeth settles in bones like a cold stalk of broccoli, like the earth in which it grows, sunless black, the recesses of space, above the moon, past the atmosphere, far beyond this Pacific cloud cover, and below water the sharks missile-cruise the forested kelp for seals, for the succulent fat beneath their skin, and between the shark jaws, in place of teeth, flex rusty bear traps, and if the sharks could, and you could maneuver it, they would let you gnaw yourself free and swim a strawberry trail to shore for the lettuce ripening in the valley, and the strawberries reddening in the hills, because fog is also good for this.
Evidently, Iredell has learned his lessons well from Faulkner and Steinbeck, but his sentences are also informed by Kerouac’s cavorting cadences. But these influences are heard and not seen—you don’t think about them as you imagine the narrator’s bloodshot eyes scanning his surroundings. Iredell’s voice is his own.
While Larry doesn’t really change much—or change into much of anything—he is self-reflective and does have at least one moment of honest self-realization: “It’s only now that I can look back and say what kind of idiot I’ve become.” And while fights abound in Prose. Poems. A Novel. it is Iredell’s ability to wrestle beauty out of squalor and depravity that one watches most keenly. Though Iredell’s debut collection may be read as a cautionary tale about drug addiction and alcoholism, it is, paradoxically, also an adventure story through the empty roads of boredom. His chosen form, brief vignettes full of striking imagery, is the perfect vehicle for his sad, hopeless vision: the world can be understood only in glimpses, seen through a glass (bottle), darkly.