Book Review - Jamie Iredell bends his prose poems into a novelistic arc

Prose. Poems. A Novel.

The narrator of Jamie Iredell’s Prose. Poems. A Novel. is named Larry, but no one ever calls him that. His co-worker Sharon calls him a “fucking son of a bitch” – a more fitting moniker despite its lack of brevity. In Iredell’s brief approximation of a novel, Larry grows up in California drinking cheap swill with his high school buddies, moves on to Reno to shoot jackbunnies in the desert night, and eventually lands in Atlanta to spend his nights at the Highlander, where “sometimes the cocaine came with actual cocaine crushed up in it.”

The three acts come from Iredell’s previously published chapbooks, Before I Moved to Nevada, When I Moved to Nevada and Atlanta. It’s tempting to call Prose. Poems. A Novel. a poetry collection. Each page contains a block of text about the right size for a poem and each of the brief missives is a self-contained vignette, a miniature vision of fuck-ups and ne’er-do-wells. But Larry’s arc through life is unmistakably novelistic and, as a result, Iredell succeeds in bending genres the way his humorous title suggests.

The most common mistake in drug fiction is the confusion of substance abuse for the substance of a story. Simply detailing what drugs were taken when and with whom doesn’t amount to much, even if Irvine Welsh and Bret Easton Ellis have padded a few novels with it. Despite the trail of powdery, postage stamp-sized bags and glistening empty bottles scattered throughout his book, Iredell doesn’t depend on drugs to tell the story.

Larry’s a talker. He lets simple statements spiral into dizzying descriptions: “The cliffs rose out of The Lake like skyscrapers from a boulevard. They were bald as boxers, the cliffs. I mean boxers, as in fighters. I’m just saying that it seems these days that all boxers shave their heads, and the cliffs were like that – treeless.”

A banal danger follows him at almost every moment, even in the dirt: “The desert itself was alkaline, the dust silty-fine, so that it worked into everything, even your skin, and started grinding things apart.” A paragraph-long sentence describes fog lilting onto the California coastline and quickly descending “below water where 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.”

Iredell’s certainly guilty of overwriting at times, but his inclination toward purplish prose is a perfect match for the fever dream of adolescence. Larry lingers on mundane moments as if they were monumentally important, distorted in the context of memory and youth. He can make a psilocybin-flavored trip to the beach or yet another bar fight feel worthy of florid detail and ponderous emphasis.

Larry’s story involves a coming of age, but he doesn’t become more likeable or wise as time passes. He becomes a grown man who nearly lives at a bar, calls his guy friends “pussy,” and a woman he sleeps with a “slut.” When he meets Blondie at the Clermont, he calls her a “monster,” though it might fit him better. But Larry’s life isn’t exactly a downward spiral. He begins with more youthful energy in California and sags with the weight of age in Atlanta, a place he doesn’t seem to particularly understand or like. In both places, he’s pretty much a “son of a bitch.”

When the story fizzles to a close, any sympathy one might’ve had for Larry is long gone. His voice, on the other hand, has seared itself upon the brain.

It would be foolish to rush through these pages to see what happens. Iredell’s unmistakable, blinding-hot sentences are what happens. Prose is what happens.

Prose. Poems. A Novel. by Jamie Iredell. Orange Alert Press. $14. 108 pp.