Introduction

What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

June 2, 2014 Issue


This week, in his wonderful Talk story “Do Not Cross,” Ian Frazier does with a particular kind of urban barricade what I’ve always dreamed of doing with a certain type of Arctic canoe. He traces it back to its source. Regarding Friedrichs Mfg. Inc.’s crowd-control barricade, Frazier writes,

Art critics sometimes describe objects as being of such overwhelming beauty that it is impossible to look at them without a sharp intake of breath. With Friedrichs Mfg. Inc.’s barricades, the sharp intake of breath may not occur at first glance, or ever, but give these objects a few minutes of contemplation and a minor visitation of the sublime may occur.

I feel that I know exactly what Frazier is talking about, because I’ve experienced that “minor visitation of the sublime” whenever I eye one of Nor-West Canoes Inc.’s wood-and-canvas beauties. They’re a common sight in Nunavut hamlets. The circular logo on their high-curved bows shows a moose head and the words “Canots Nor-West Canoes Inc. Prevost. P.Q. Canada.” I’ve always wanted to visit Prevost, Quebec, and see where they’re manufactured. That’s precisely what Frazier does in his “Do Not Cross.” The “small silver label” on the barricade says “Friedrichs Custom Mfg. Inc., 303 Butterworth St., New Orleans, LA 70121.” Characterizing himself as “the vacationer” (Frazier complies with Talk’s banishment of “I”), he travels to 303 Butterworth Street, New Orleans:

The vacationer followed the Jefferson Highway a long way out, via two buses and some walking. Butterworth Street lies close by the Mississippi River and almost underneath the Huey P. Long Bridge, a structure so vaulting and high that it seems to extend from one white, towering Gulf coast cloud to the next. Low industrial buildings and idling semis and gray mud puddles in the shape of tire tracks compose the scene back on earth. The Friedrichs factory is made of corrugated metal painted white on the street side and not painted on the others. Dim and echoing, it opens its bay doors to the daylight. The vacationer walked in. Not unexpectedly, hundreds of barricades lay or leaned in piles on the factory floor. Nobody seemed to be about.

In a back office, Frazier (“the vacationer”) finds the company’s secretary and talks with her. The whole piece is inspired! Frazier has a knack for finding stories in overlooked places and under-appreciated things. “Do Not Cross” is one of his best. I enjoyed it immensely. It makes me want to jump in my car and drive to Prevost. Maybe this summer I’ll do it.

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