Expect miracles, droll humor in collection of tales
NORTH LIBERTY– Local author Patrick Irelan doesn’t expect everyone to believe in miracles.
But if he piques your imagination or wonderment, he will consider that praise enough.
Miracles– of both the everyday and inexplicable sorts– intertwine Irelan’s recently-released collection of short stories, “The Miracle Boy,” published by Ice Cube Press.
In the opening selection, an ordinary farm boy learns to walk on water, and his family and community set about capitalizing on this miracle in the most matter-of-fact, businesslike way. It is in the same pragmatic manner that they regard yet a second miracle from the boy, and are equally sensible when the miracles stop and life goes on as usual.
It’s not as much the story line that draws a reader in, as it is Irelan’s canny knack for setting the scene and creating characters that are perfect embodiments of no-nonsense Midwestern attributes. Anyone who has ever spent time in rural community in the heartland will readily fall in step with miracle boy Michael and his plainspoken family.
North Liberty book publisher Steve Semken said he is attracted to Irelan’s writing because he is truly from the Midwest and a true Iowan.
“His roots include small town Iowa, parents of the railroad and farming,” said Semken. “People from Iowa can relate to his wry humor and like that the stories take place in a place they can relate to.”
But just when one begins to feel comfortable, Irelan zings the reader into dissonance with an abrupt twist, a blunt revelation or a sharp injection of his distinctive dry humor.
Humor is a constant in much of Irelan’s work.
“I like to portray characters in a way that allows me to use humor,” Irelan said. “Some of my stories are completely serious but most of them have some element of humor. I think I learned that from my father and two uncles.”
In fact, the relatives surrounding Irelan in his childhood– particularly his father and two uncles– shaped his love for prose and inspired him to become a storyteller as well.
“They were great story tellers; the best stories were ones that started with something from real life, but then were quickly embellished by their imaginations. I thought they were just brilliant. And they would tell the same stories the next time they saw you,” said Irelan.
His mother’s stories were very useful to as well, when Irelan penned his two family memoirs, “A Firefly in the Night” (2006), and “Central Standard” (2002), published by University of Iowa Press.
Born in Fairfield, where his father was working for the Burlington Railroad at the time, Irelan’s family first lived in the small town of Salem, and moved to an 80-acre farm in Davis County when Irelan was three years old. His father continued to work for the railroad while also working the farm, and his mother served as a teacher in a nearby country schoolhouse that Irelan also attended. His favorite author was Mark Twain, and he read and re-read the copies of “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” from his tiny school library every year.
“When I was a child, it never occurred to me that I could be a writer. Nobody in our family ever did that,” Irelan said. He wrote dozens of short stories over a period of 30 or 40 years, he said, and many were printed in magazines and literary journals before he decided to compile them into a collection for publication.
“It took me a long time to realize that I knew all kinds of things that most other people didn’t know, and that those stories might be entertaining. That’s when I began writing seriously; in the early years of college and in my first job as a schoolteacher.”
Many of Irelan’s stories contain elements of his past, drawn from his rural Iowa upbringing.
“I want to be clear; I am not the narrator,” Irelan said. “There are elements in the stories from my life, something of the past in my stories. The characters may reflect people I’ve seen, but they are exaggerated to be more entertaining. Once you fictionalize a place or a person, you can do anything you want to make it more interesting.”
With characters that are odd combinations of colloquial and eccentric, principled and unorthodox, it’s still easy to find something essentially Midwestern in many of his protagonists.
“Even when they are committing crimes, they are doing so earnestly and politely,” Irelan joked. However, Irelan doesn’t hesitate to pepper his characters’ dialogue with the occasional mild profanity, or a scene here and there with an indelicate impropriety, if the story calls for it. He doesn’t worry that readers will find it vulgar.
“Most readers will realize it’s part of the fiction, and overlook it,” he said.
It’s one way Irelan subtly challenges readers to think for themselves. His stories also invite the scrutiny of modern society, all its ironies and idiosyncrasies, without passing judgment of his own.
“The stories, despite their comedy, are also serious. They may satirize some aspect of today’s pop culture, because that’s the way I respond to it sometimes,” said Irelan. “But I don’t get angry at pop culture; I find it an endless source of inspiration.”
His story lines are as simple– or as complex– as a reader chooses to make them, but rarely are they tied up in neat packages with tidy endings.
“Well, the story never ends, right? If the character is still alive by the end of the story, they are going to go on to do something else. It’s up the reader to decide what that is,” said Irelan.
Irelan said he understands his stories aren’t going to please every reader or every taste, but he hopes the positive reviews and reading invitations he has received so far are indicators that he has succeeded in his main objective.
“I think a lot of people will find the books enjoyable,” said Irelan. “I am trying to entertain. I can’t dance and I can barely sing, so this is what I can do to that end.
“I am writing for the world, but I know in the end, my audience will pick me.”
“Miracle Boy” is the third of Irelan’s books published by Ice Cube Press in North Liberty. This book, as well as Irelan’s memoir and his 2009 collection of short stories, “Reruns,” can be ordered online through Ice Cube Press at www.icecubepress.com, or by visiting or calling Prairie Lights Bookstore or Barnes & Noble. Also, ask for it in local libraries.