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 Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Ian Frazier's Bronx Trilogy

I see Amazon is announcing that Ian Frazier’s new collection, Hogs Wild: Selected Reporting Pieces, will be released June 7, 2016. This, for me, will be one of the major publishing events of the year, maybe the decade. I want to start the celebration now by considering three Frazier pieces that constitute what I call his Bronx Trilogy: "Utopia, the Bronx" (The New Yorker, June 26, 2006); "Out of the Bronx" (The New Yorker, February 6, 2012); "Bronx Dreams" (The New Yorker, December 7, 2015). The first two of these pieces are, I think, strong candidates for inclusion in Hogs Wild. The third, “Bronx Dreams,” which appeared just a couple of months ago, might be too recent to be collected. All three are set in the Bronx, but each is different in its own way. It’s interesting to compare them.

“Utopia, the Bronx”

I first read this great piece when it appeared in the June 26, 2006 New Yorker. What impressed me about it at that time (and still does) is the way it evolves from a description of a chunk of urban nature (the grounds of Co-op City, in the Bronx), including its aboriginal history (there’s a wonderful passage listing the contents of Indian middens found there), to a fascinating account of a rent strike in 1975-76. Frazier’s masterly "Canal Street" (The New Yorker, April 30, 1990) and "Route 3" (The New Yorker, February 16 & 23, 2004) move in a similar way – from immediate experience of a locale to a specific story embedded in the locale’s history.

Rereading “Utopia, the Bronx” today, I noticed things I’d missed the first time, e.g., the Russian references (“If you’ve seen Soviet-era apartment complexes in Russia or Eastern Europe, Co-op City looks like them. They have the same stark, modernist architecture, the same lonesome open spaces between the buildings, same walkways, same benches”), and the hint of anti-capitalism (“Like the Soviet high-rise projects, Co-op City is a survival from a more collectivist age into today’s world of every-man-for-himself”) that is more pronounced in the later “Out of the Bronx.”

The core of “Utopia, the Bronx” is the rent strike. Frazier writes,

Cornered into a fight, the residents of Co-op City ended up waging a minor revolution for self-determination – against the project’s creator and management, against the powers of the city and the state, and against generally unsympathetic public opinion – that deserves a modest statue of its own.

In a way, “Utopia, the Bronx” is that statue – an eloquent tribute to the ordinary working people who “had taken weakness – their lack of resources, shortage of options, the fact that many of them were elderly – and converted it to strength.”

“Out of the Bronx”

This piece is also about a strike – the 2008 Stella D’oro Biscuit Company workers’ strike. Normally, Frazier isn’t political. But in “Out of the Bronx,” his disgust at the gross inequality caused by Wall Street greed is palpable. He says,

In the second week of October, just days after the factory closed, Goldman Sachs announced that it would pay out twenty-three billion dollars in holiday bonuses to its executives and staff. The amount was the largest bonus pool in the hundred-and-forty-year history of Goldman Sachs. At the highest average salary Brynwood had offered—about seven hundred and eighty dollars a week—the hundred and thirty-four Stella D’oro workers together would have had to work forty-hour weeks for about forty-two hundred years to earn twenty-three billion dollars.

But reading “Out of the Bronx solely as a political argument is not adequate to its art. It contains a paragraph – the description of the “baking-cookie smell” that used to come from the Stella D’oro Biscuit factory, in the Bronx, before it was closed – that went straight into my anthology of favorite Frazier passages:

The baking-cookie smell entered check-cashing places and barbershops and bodegas, it crossed the razor wire into the M.T.A. yards and maintenance sheds west of Broadway, it occupied the loud channel of the Major Deegan Expressway, just to the east; kids dozing in the back seats of their parents’ cars sniffed the air and knew they were almost home. The smell competed with the acridity of hot wax and detergent chemicals at Nice Guys Car Wash, just across the street from the factory, and domesticated the beer fumes and late-night atmosphere at Stack’s Tavern, a shamrock-bedecked bar between 234th and 236th Streets, where a bartender told me, “Sure, I remember the smell—fresh-baked cookies. Nuttin’ wrong with that!”

That “kids dozing in the back seats of their parents’ cars sniffed the air and knew they were almost home” is inspired! There are lots of eye and ear writers. Frazier is one of the few who are also nose writers. Recall the Russia-smell” (“There's a lot of diesel fuel in it, and cucumber peels, and old tea bags, and sour milk, and a sweetness - currant jam, or mulberries crushed into the waffle treads of heavy boots - and fresh wet mud, and a lot of wet cement”) in his superb Travels in Siberia.

In a brilliant move near the end of “Out of the Bronx,” Frazier goes in search of the cookie smell in Ashland, Ohio, where the Archway-Stella D’oro factory is located. After driving all around the place, he finally finds it, carried by the wind into a forest of locust trees and pin oaks. He walks into the woods and inhales:

The warm, gingerbready smell was still strong here. To find that old Kingsbridge aroma adrift in an Ohio woods seemed strange. At the far edge of the woods was the lawn of a low-slung office building. The lawn had just been mowed, and there the cookie smell mingled suburbanly with the fragrances of wet earth and cut grass.


“Bronx Dreams”

This is the most recent of Frazier’s Bronx pieces. I praised it when it appeared in the December 7, 2015 New Yorker (see here). It’s about an amazing community organization called DreamYard, “the largest arts organization in the Bronx,” that uses art, theatre, and dance to inspire kids to pursue an education. Frazier reports,

Of the kids who participate long-term in the center’s on-site programs, ninety-eight per cent graduate from high school and go on to college—an achievement, considering that the over-all rate of high-school graduation in the Bronx is just above fifty per cent.

My favorite part of “Bronx Dreams” is Frazier’s delightful description of the final night of the Bronx Arts Festival at Lehman College:

On the final night, in the college’s steeply pitched five-hundred-seat theatre, the audience seemed to loom around the kids onstage, applauding and giving shout-outs. Fifty kids in zombie makeup zombied to “Thriller,” two middle-school actors did the scene in which Othello strangles Desdemona, a girl named Massire Camara recited a poem about the death of her uncle that is now on YouTube, and a stage full of elementary-age students in a step-dance group called the Bengal Tigers, from P.S. 55, did a routine with stomping, clapping, and chanting that bounced the audience out of its seats. In mid-show, the whole place stood and sang the national anthem, a cappella.

In my opinion, Frazier is The New Yorker’s greatest writer – where greatness means specific, original, attentive, factual, subjective, empathetic, lyrical. I avidly look forward to his new collection Hogs Wild.

Credit: The above illustration by Laura Carlin is from Ian Frazier's "Out of the Bronx" (The New Yorker, February 6, 2012).

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