Sunday, February 04, 2018

Gone to New York (2005)

This collection of pieces by Ian Frazier looks a little like one of his collections of humorous pieces. Most come from the New Yorker and most are very short, under five printed pages. But the themes and style are more like his travel books, focused on his adopted home of New York City. He moved there in the '70s to work for the New Yorker and has lived there ever since, making it his base. He has lived in lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and suburban New Jersey. He pokes at New York life in ways no one else ever seems to but that are perfectly characteristic of him. He researches how the Holland Tunnel was built in one of the longer pieces, for example, and piles on with unusual detail. In another piece, a short one, he collects comments left by people signing the registration book at a Brooklyn art museum. One continuing theme is funny in a droll New York kind of way, and that is his obsession with cleaning out plastic bags that collect in the highest branches of trees. He and a friend even design and patent a device, the "bag snagger," which they take on day trips around the city to clean. He says it replaced golf for them. Jamaica Kincaid writes an affectionate foreword—I'm not sure why, but it cheers me to find they are friends—and along the way asks perhaps the most salient question about Ian Frazier. "I asked myself, How did he do that? And that thought has never stopped occurring to me; to this day, when I read something new that he has written, I think, How did he do that?" It's true, and in addition he makes whatever it is look easy. One thing I admire and even envy is his prodigious reporting capability, which only means his willingness to sit and talk to people, ask questions, listen to the answers, and then report them out in his light and easy-rolling essays that nonetheless stay with you. And even though I have read his amazing family history more than once (Family), I don't think I ever realized before how proud he is to be from Ohio. He's careful to make sure we understand New York City—which he doesn't even love as much as Russia or the American Great Plains, let alone Ohio—is only his adopted home. It's not his real home. He's just been living there for a while. Maybe that explains why this is his slenderest travel volume. Certainly worth a look.

In case it's not at the library.

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