With that eye-catching title, I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac appears to promise a memoir/collection of revelatory personal essays adroit at swirling pathos into humor, surreal episodes into a conventional autobiographical arc, and nuanced introspection into a stand-up’s knowing delivery. At a glance, then, Jamie Iredell’s book could sit comfortably on a shelf (organized by style) next to Jowita Bydlowska (Drunk Mom), Augusten Burroughs (Dry), David Rakoff (Don’t Get Too Comfortable), Margaret Cho (I’m the One That I Want), and David Sedaris (circa Naked). For prospective readers, Iredell’s nineteen essays might inspire one resounding question: “Exactly what species of trouble has this guy run into?”
Certainly there is a family resemblance between Iredell’s essays and those celebrated others. Self-deprecating humor? Check. Bizarre anecdotes? For sure. Bad behavior? Absolutely, and no shortage of it. Wisdom about repeated journeys into the dark side? Indeed.
If there’s a distinction to be made, though, it’s that Iredell also dips his toe into another genre: the recovery narrative. He presents himself, more or less, as a happily married family man and lettered college instructor settled in Georgia (by way of California and Nevada) who’s reasonably surprised at his own health and success. Based on the cautionary tale that is his ramshackle history, after all, odds did not favor such a comfortable and grounded domesticity. Publicly sorting through his past, Iredell’s enacting a warts-and-all redemption story while circulating a kind of PSA about the myriad pitfalls of excess.
That’s especially true of the book’s core essays. Beginning with “What You Can Learn from LSD, Or a Work of Art Takes More Than Seven Seconds,” Iredell chronicles years of desperate living that began, not atypically, with teenage high jinx. A few essays later he supplies a telling snapshot: “You’re sixteen and hanging out with your buddies at a friend’s trailer because his dad’s out of town and you decide you’re gonna get fucked up, so you drink a six pack of beer in under a half hour. The last things you remember are sitting down to take a crap then your buddies laughing you awake when you pass out with your pants around your ankles.”
In addition to beer, the essays gradually reveal that there was a distillery’s worth of alcohol and a small population of well-paid dealers fueling Iredell’s mania—all showcased (with attendant deeply regretted actions) across “How to Not Get Arrested for Driving While High on Crack and After Having Drunk a Bunch of Vodka at a James Taylor Concert,” “A Brief History of Opiate Use,” “Never Pay for a Cab This Way if You Can Help It” (with its memorable opening: “I was in this fucked relationship with a woman who had the beginnings of a serious drinking problem. To be fair, I too swilled ten to twelve too many beers a day and was a heavy drug user”), “One Way to Survive an Abusive Relationship,” “13 Steps to Becoming a Barslut, and What Happens Afterwards,” “The Most Disgusting Things I Did While I was a Smoker,” “A Brief, Depressing, Hilarious, Disgusting History with Pickup Lines,” and “What It’s Really Like” (the titular “It’s” referring to alcoholism, in Iredell’s case a disease accompanied by night terrors, chronic hypertension, diarrhea, muscle cramps, vacillating emotions, and a propensity for violence).
Smile- and grimace-inducing, lively, and expertly paced, these essays often favor an economical, plot-oriented relating of the tale. “The Most Disgusting Things I Did While I was a Smoker,” for example, basically describes ten “things,” from relapsing to scavenging from bar ashtrays. A natural storyteller, Iredell is not especially attracted (in the manner of, say, Bernard Cooper’s The Bill from My Father or Rick Moody’s The Black Veil) to exhaustive introspective psychotherapy sessions or an epic quest for the deep dark origins of his traits. The result is consistently entertaining—which might for some readers emphasize the dramatic, rollicking account at the expense of the useful insight.
The remaining essays relate to the author’s experiences as a father with a young daughter, being a chronic insomniac, the perils and rewards of reading, and social relations in Castroville, his ethnically divided hometown. And there’s “Fat,” a lovely, heartfelt recollection that delves into Iredell’s lifelong body size problem and his shifting attitude toward it. (He writes, “…if you were to ask my relatives, friends, and doctors throughout my history, I’m ‘big-boned,’ ‘barrel-chested,’ ‘chubby,’ ‘chunky,’ ‘heavy,’ and ‘husky,’ but not ‘fat.’ But whatever ‘they’ call it, I have been what I call ‘fat’ all of my life.”) While there’s questionable payoff in a few that seem tangled (on race relations), unfocused (on superheroes), and incomplete (on religious moderates), the essays largely captivate and educate, energetically sharing truths learned from painful experiences for the benefit of others.