Last Mass: By Jamie Iredell, 199 pgs. By Jim Woster

Feb 01, 2016

Kurt Vonnegut set out to write his big novel about the WWII bombing of Dresden, but ended up with a weird prose-collage featuring a planet called Tralfamadore and birds that say “Poo-tee-weet.” (Slaughterhouse-Five, if you didn’t know. I no longer know what people know or should know.)

Jamie Iredell set out to write his big novel about Spain’s colonization of California. His protagonist was going to be Father Junipero Serra, whom the Los Angeles Times summarizes as “the 18th-century Spanish Franciscan priest who founded nine missions in California and spread Catholicism around the western United States.”

What Iredell ended up writing was his own collage of California’s colonial history and his Catholic upbringing on California’s CentralCoast.

Iredell doesn’t concern himself too much with parallels or contrasts, as that would be too easy. The church’s treatment of native Californians was as horrific as you’d assume, but Iredell’s life as a Catholic kid wasn’t horrific or idyllic. And if it occurs to him along the way to write about Star Wars, or the Georgia cabin he sequestered himself in to work, then he writes about that.

Paragraphs like this:

Although Hernando de Alarcón’s ascent of the Colorado River Delta in 1540 proved that Baja California was a peninsula, Spanish rhetoric written by Father Fray Antonio de la Ascensión, Carmelite friar for Vizcaíno’s expedition of 1602-3, described Isla California, meant to discredit Sir Francis Drake’s claim of Nova Albion for the British monarch.

Share the book with paragraphs like this:

At Reconciliation the following Saturday I confessed to stealing the T-shirt. I never confessed to my other thefts, of baseball cards or chewing gum, or the butterfly knife I stole out of Chuck Calderon’s jean jacket.

I usually can’t stand the results of a writer saying to himself, “I did all this research, goddamnit, I’m fucking using it,” but Last Mass’s lack of compromise is fascinating—even Faulknerian. An interviewer once asked William Faulkner, “Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?” and he responded, “Read it four times.” I’m going to give Last Mass at least one more read: see what I notice the second time, see how much of Father Serra’s frequently interrupted story I retain. Although I should probably mention that I was already interested in California history and was raised Catholic. –Jim Woster (Civil Coping Mechanisms,