Jamie Iredell’s I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac is a collection of essays following the trajectory of the essayist’s life, from school, through college and eventually, to life as a father to his young daughter. The collection of 19 essays delves into topics as varied as body image, obesity, alcoholism, drug abuse, feminism, racism, sexism, corny pickup lines and fatherhood.
Particularly captivating are chapters on smoking and Iredell’s tempestuous and disastrous relationship with his girlfriend from his college years. Throughout, Iredell warns the reader that these essays do not serve to moralize or sermonize. And yet, the chronological arrangement of the essays, from school through the drug-addled years of college, graduate school, insomnia and fatherhood do have that effect on reader—and not in a bad way.
Certain essays stand out in memory for their sheer candor. “The Most Disgusting Things I Did While I Was a Smoker,” true to its title, takes the reader on a nicotine-induced romp through the high and lows of Iredell’s tobacco addiction. The essay lists ten disgusting things, including a particularly cringe worthy No. 6:
Some jackass once told me that it was good for my plants if I put my butts into the soil, and I want a cigarette bad enough to retrieve even these molding spent cigs, turning some shade between green and blue. I crack all these open into a heap of stinking, mostly burnt tobacco that I roll into new cigarettes. This tastes exactly how you imagine it might taste. It tastes like shit, if shit tasted like previously smoked, multi-day-and-in-some-cases-multi-week-and-month-old cigarette tobacco.
Essays on religion and homosexuality titled, “The Gods of California and North Carolina Fistfight in Heaven,” and one on Superheroes, titled “Why We Need Superheroes, or, A Parental Theory, or What Was Just a Review Of Chronicle Before People Were Murdered While Watching The Dark Knight Rises” lose the reader a bit and seem almost shoehorned into this collection to allow for diversity of topics. An essay titled “How Unattractive People Really Are,” however, is a candid, judgment-free assessment of the imperfections of everyday people, like those that visit the pool at Piedmont Park in midtown Atlanta. People, Iredell, observes, are:
. . . all so average looking. They slip their shorts back over their swimsuits before they leave. Raise their arms through their T-shirts and tank tops. It’s amazing what this clothing does: all these little imperfections again hidden. But for the glorious moment these people, like me, left them bare. We were all gazelles at the one waterhole for miles around. Maybe we were more like chimps. Maybe more like humans.
Likewise, Iredell is more than happy to turn the lens inward and discuss his own imperfections. In fact, the collection’s first essay, titled, quite simply, “Fat” does just that. In it, Iredell talks about his lifelong struggle with being heavy and society’s framing of “fat.” Iredell eschews the word “obese”:
. . . I’ll rail against the “obese” label. I am fat, which implies the big, jolly, loveable guy I know that I am most of the time. Not the diseased, sick, addicted-to-an-unhealthy-lifestyle and poor-decision-making person that “obese” implies-even if I have and continue to display some of those characteristics.
Iredell’s narrative style combines conversational with erudition. Like many talented American writers of his generation, Iredell seems to force a certain banality into the prose to avoid what the writer may perceive as being seen as too esoteric. This reticence to acknowledge the author’s scholarship, notwithstanding, I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac is a great read and an honest, brutal and at times fingernails-on-the-blackboard style cringe inducing exposition of the high and lows of human existence.