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Patrick Irelan's "A Firefly in the Night"

Wry Iowa Memoirist Probes the Greatness of Everyday Life

BY THOMAS DEAN

Patrick Irelan established himself as a skilled and engagingmemoirist with his Central Standard: A Time, a Place,a Family (Universityof Iowa Press, 2002). Whereas that work focused almost entirely on his familyand personal history with the railroad and farm, A Fireflyin the Night (IceCube Press, 2006) takes a more wide-ranging approach with a series of autobiographicalessays that return to his childhood, but also sketch out experiences as a highschool and college student, husband, father, single parent, working professional,early retiree, and writer. Throughout the book, Irelan maintains his trademarkdeadpan and self-deprecating humor, presenting unique personal experiencesthat also illuminate a typical existence growing up and living a life in themiddle lands.

The first quarter of the book harkens back to CentralStandard in subjectmatter and tone, deepening and broadening Irelan’s portrayals of hisindustrious but somewhat distant father, devoted and hard-working mother, oddballrelatives, and quietly dramatic events of a mid-century Midwestern boy.

“The Dime” is perhaps the most engaging of these pieces. Spinningmemories out of precise details preserved in family documents—doctor’sbills and a legal settlement claim—Irelan recounts a fateful boyhoodday visiting his grandparents in Ottumwa, which ends with his leg pinnedunder a gravel truck. But like all incidents in life, this isolated mini-tragedyspins a web of effects into the future. A modest sum Irelan’s parentsreceived in a legal settlement is invested and later supports the youngadult’s final year of college.

Medical documents reveal previously unknown information: three-year-oldPat had suffered head as well as leg injuries. Irelan uses these new revelationsto look humorously both back and forward at his life: perhaps such injuriesexplain his struggles in school, from difficulties memorizing the GettysburgAddress to understanding the twists and turns of Claude Lévi-Strauss,and perhaps they entitle him to lifelong government disability paymentsthat will allow him a “permanent rest cure.”

While the essays in the collection each stand on their own as individualsketches, themes emerge. The throwaway joke about a “permanent restcure” takes on new depth and meaning later in the book in honestand sometimes poignant lamentations about the weariness of working life.But the young adult Patrick Irelan in the middle of the book is full ofidealism over the promise of life: participating in a civil rights marchin Mississippi while teaching college in Tennessee, and being madly inlove with a young wife and beautiful baby daughter, for example. Yet evenin Irelan’s early years, setbacks plague his family’s experiences.His father and mother struggle to make their poor-soil farm work. His relativesendure the hard labor and inequities of an Ottumwa packing house (of whichPatrick himself gets a bitter taste during one summer high school job).Soon Irelan’s own life shows cracks: a divorce, problems with anxietyand alcohol, boredom with work. But all these experiences are bittersweet.On the plus side, they are fodder for his writing, which is Irelan’strue passion.

Irelan is both a curmudgeon and a truth-teller when he speaks bluntlyabout his own shortcomings as a worker and professional, and about theabsurdities and shams that prop up American values of hard work and success.One essay about a professional conference to which he is sent in Newton,Iowa, pokes holes in the corporate- and education-speak spewed forth atsuch gatherings. Yet Irelan turns the empty occasion to his advantage byexploring the quintessential Midwesternness and authentic vitality of thiscentral Iowa working-class community. (Ironically, with the recent announcementof Whirlpool’s pulling Maytag out of Newton, Irelan’s themesof the shifting sands of life are unwittingly illustrated by such disruptionof the author’s own commentary and forcing an addendum.) Irelan doesnot stand pompously above the fray of the world of work’s shortcomings,however. He is brutally and humorously honest when he begins one essaywith the simple declaration, “I don’t like to work,” andanother with “I have many faults.” Although Irelan is not necessarilytrying to make a virtue out of “slackerness”—indeed,he works quite hard and professionally at his jobs—he does poke holesin the puffery of America’s religion of work. Irelan’s dreamis to be a writer, and he becomes so by daily devotion to producing manuscriptduring lunch hours, nights, and weekends. The author clearly works hard,and well, at what he loves, leading him to an authentic life.

The book ends with Irelan’s other great love—the railroad.The author and his new companion Janet take the California Zephyr fromMount Pleasant, Iowa, to Chicago, a journey full of awe: at the magnificenceof the Midwestern landscape, at America’s greatest river, and attheir destination, America’s greatest city (as Irelan asserts).

In the interstices of an everyday Midwestern life lies the greatness ofexistence, whether in Chicago or Ottumwa or St. Petersburg, Russia, whereSergei Rachmaninov studied and whose beautiful music literally brings tearsto the eyes of Patrick and Janet as the book ends at a Chicago Symphonyconcert. Irelan’s epigraph quotes Blackfoot Nation Chief Crowfoot: “Whatis life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night.” Irelan’sthusly titled book shows how those beautiful flashes of life are part ofall our existences.

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