Patrick Irelan’s “A Firefly in the Night”: Wry Iowa Memoirist Probes the Greatness of Everyday Life



Patrick Irelan established himself as a skilled and engaging memoirist 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 Firefly in the Night (Ice Cube Press, 2006) takes a more wide-ranging approach with a series of autobiographical essays that return to his childhood, but also sketch out experiences as a high school and college student, husband, father, single parent, working professional,early retiree, and writer. Throughout the book, Irelan maintains his trademark deadpan and self-deprecating humor, presenting unique personal experiences that also illuminate a typical existence growing up and living a life in the middle lands.

The first quarter of the book harkens back to Central Standard in subject matter and tone, deepening and broadening Irelan’s portrayals of his industrious but somewhat distant father, devoted and hard-working mother, odd ball relatives, and quietly dramatic events of a mid-century Midwestern boy.

“The Dime” is perhaps the most engaging of these pieces. Spinning memories out of precise details preserved in family documents—doctor’s bills and a legal settlement claim—Irelan recounts a fateful boyhood day visiting his grandparents in Ottumwa, which ends with his leg pinned under a gravel truck. But like all incidents in life, this isolated mini-tragedy spins a web of effects into the future. A modest sum Irelan’s parents received in a legal settlement is invested and later supports the young adult’s final year of college.

Medical documents reveal previously unknown information: three-year-old Pat had suffered head as well as leg injuries. Irelan uses these new revelations to look humorously both back and forward at his life: perhaps such injuries explain his struggles in school, from difficulties memorizing the Gettysburg Address 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 individual sketches, themes emerge. The throwaway joke about a “permanent rest cure” takes on new depth and meaning later in the book in honest and 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 in love with a young wife and beautiful baby daughter, for example. Yet even in Irelan’s early years, setbacks plague his family’s experiences.His father and mother struggle to make their poor-soil farm work. His relatives endure the hard labor and inequities of an Ottumwa packing house (of which Patrick himself gets a bitter taste during one summer high school job). Soon Irelan’s own life shows cracks: a divorce, problems with anxiety and 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 bluntly about his own shortcomings as a worker and professional, and about the absurdities 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 at such gatherings. Yet Irelan turns the empty occasion to his advantage by exploring the quintessential Midwesternness and authentic vitality of thiscentral Iowa working-class community. (Ironically, with the recent announcement of Whirlpool’s pulling Maytag out of Newton, Irelan’s themes of the shifting sands of life are unwittingly illustrated by such disruption of the author’s own commentary and forcing an addendum.) Irelan does not stand pompously above the fray of the world of work’s shortcomings,however. He is brutally and humorously honest when he begins one essay with the simple declaration, “I don’t like to work,” and another with “I have many faults.” Although Irelan is not necessarily trying to make a virtue out of “slackerness”—indeed, he works quite hard and professionally at his jobs—he does poke holes in the puffery of America’s religion of work. Irelan’s dream is to be a writer, and he becomes so by daily devotion to producing manuscript during 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 from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, to Chicago, a journey full of awe: at the magnificence of 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 of existence, whether in Chicago or Ottumwa or St. Petersburg, Russia, where Sergei Rachmaninov studied and whose beautiful music literally brings tearsto the eyes of Patrick and Janet as the book ends at a Chicago Symphony concert. Irelan’s epigraph quotes Blackfoot Nation Chief Crowfoot: “What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night.” Irelan’s thusly titled book shows how those beautiful flashes of life are part of all our existences.