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.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Notes on Ian Frazier's "Hogs Wild" - Part I


I’m still making my way through Ian Frazier’s great new reporting collection Hogs Wild, savoring each piece, trying to get at the ingredients that make Frazier’s writing such a pleasure for me. I’m reading the pieces in the order they appear in the book. I’ve just finished “On Impact,” which is approximately midway. I suppose I could wait and post my impressions of Hogs Wild after I’ve finished it. But I find the urge to post a few preliminary notes irresistible. Here then, in no particular order, are some of my early responses to this rich wonderful book.

1. In “Hungry Minds,” Frazier says of the Church of the Holy Apostles soup kitchen,

I know about the soup kitchen because I am one of the teachers of a writers’ workshop that meets there after lunch on Wednesdays in the spring. I started the workshop fourteen years ago, with the help of a grant. I wanted to do something with the soup kitchen because I admired the people there and the way it is run and the whole idea of it. There are so many hungers out there; the soup kitchen deals, efficiently and satisfyingly, with the most basic kind. I consider it, in its own fashion, a work of art.

I consider it, in its own fashion, a work of art. Right there, I think, is a glimpse of Frazier’s distinctive way of seeing. How many of us would approach a soup kitchen as a work of art? Probably not many. It seems to me that this is the way Frazier views many of the wildly differing organizations and events that he covers in Hogs Wild, whether it's a Big Read on Staten Island billed as “Race Issues in Mark Twain: A Community Dialogue on Language & Dialect in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn” (“Word”), a seal-watching cruise in New York City harbor (“Back to the Harbor”), Burt Swersey’s Inventor’s Studio class at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (“Form and Fungus”), the Ocmulgee Wild Hog Festival in Abbeville, Georgia (“Hogs Wild”), or the Nageswarans’ “meteorite” exhibit at Rutgers University Geology Museum (“On Inpact”).

That doesn’t mean that Frazier aestheticizes or dramatizes or, in any sense, transforms these events. His art is painstakingly factual. He reports what he sees (“Their bundles are tied together with yellow nylon rope, cinched with bungee cords, taped with silver duct tape, or packed loose in double or triple plastic shopping bags”), smells (“The smell of that room leans you back against a hayrick on an autumn afternoon”), hears (“That part of Staten Island is a New World symphony, though, with the bridge humming above, and the tall towers holding up their roadway span like a great gate, and tanker ships anchored at different angles in the Harbor, and the tidal currents colliding”), and imagines (“I imagined a dotted line extending from the shattered tile on the floor and through the hole, out the roof, across the blank blue vista in the skylight, and onward and outward, incalculably far”).

Frazier’s approach is intensely personal. John Updike’s brilliant phrase “subjective specifics” comes to mind. Updike was describing Czeslaw Milosz’s essays (see "Survivor/Believer," The New Yorker, December 24, 2001). I think the phrase applies to Frazier’s writing, too.

2. Rivers are among the many reasons I read Frazier. Recall his magnificent list of rivers in Great Plains (“Among the rivers of the Great Plains are the Cimaron, the Red, the Brazos, the Purgatoire, the Trinity, the Big Sandy, the Canadian, the Smoky Hill, the Soloman, the Republican, the Arikaree, the Frenchman, the Little Blue, the Big Blue, the South Platte, the North Palatte, the Laramie, the Loup, the Niobrara, the White Earth, the Cheyenne, the Owl, the Grand, the Cannonball, the Heart, the Knife, the Little Missouri, the Yellowstone, the Powder, the Tongue, the Bighorn, the Musselshell, the Judith, the Marias, the Milk, the Missouri”). In the first fourteen pieces of Hogs Wild, at least fifteen rivers are mentioned: the Flathead, the Deschutes, the Hudson, the Mohawk, the Savannah, the Ocmulgee, the Illinois, the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Tennessee, the Ohio, the Des Moines, the Wabash, the Pere Marquette, and the Manistee.

In one of the most memorable lines in Hogs Wild, Frazier says of the Deschutes, “So much of the world is bullshit. This river is not” (“The One That Got Away”).

My favorite Hogs Wild river reference occurs in “Form and Fungus,” a fascinating story about the invention of an all-natural substitute for Styrofoam. Near the end of the piece, Frazier writes,

Whenever I visit the company, I like to stop first at an abandoned railroad bridge at the north end of Green Island. The branch of the Mohawk that the bridge spans has carved low bluffs from the island’s four-hundred-million-year-old shale. The bluffs resemble stacks of very thin, reddish-black crêpes. All river confluences are glorious. Canoes full of Iroquois Indians travelled past here, and fur traders, and soldiers, and surveyors for the Erie Canal. The canal turned left near this point, followed the Mohawk’s shale valley westward, tapped into the Great Lakes, and made the fortune of New York City. Here, as at all confluences, wildlife congregates. In the early morning, it’s an amphitheatre of birdsong, while Canada geese add their usual commotion. So many crows show up in the evenings that they plague the town of Green Island, and the mayor has to scare them away with a blank pistol.

I love that passage. The stop at an abandoned railroad bridge, the reference to the canoes full of Iroquois, the “amphitheatre of birdsong,” the mayor scaring away the crows with a blank pistol, and that fervent assertion, “All river confluences are glorious” – it’s quintessential Frazier! I eat it up.

3. Hogs Wild teems with interesting people. They divide into two broad categories – experts and officials that Frazier interviews and ordinary folks that he encounters in the course of his explorations. There are no celebrities, powerbrokers, or oligarchs. This is one of the many reasons I admire Frazier’s writing.

Here are the names of some of the people who populate the first half of Hogs Wild: Bob Blaisdell, Susan Shapiro, Foster Thayer, Father Rand Frew, William Greenlaw, Wendy Shepherd, Clyde Kuemmerle, Harold McKnight, Prince McKnight, Jacqueline McKnight, Rodney Williams, Olimpo Tlatelpa, Linda Adams, Joe Randolph (“Stealhead Joe”), John Hazel, Diane Daviscourt, Alex Gonsiewski, Marianne Kent-Stoll, Beth Gorrie, Virginia Allen, Carolyn Daley, Millissa Myers, Paul Sieswerda, William Zantzinger, Hattie Carroll, Reverend Dr. Theodore C. Jackson, Jr., Dorothy Johnson, Mildred Jessup, Bobby Phelps, Gavin McIntyre, Eben Bayer, Burt Swersey, Sue Van Hook, Henry Shrapnel, Shelley Stiaes, Joe Corn, John J. Mayer, Robbie Edalgo, Bob Addison, Srini Nageswaran, Lieutenant Robert A. Brightman, Louis Detofsky, Jeremy Delaney, Gary Weinstein, and Joe Boesenberg.

Frazier’s descriptions of some of these people make me smile. For example, in “Hogs Wild,” he says of Joe Corn, a senior wildlife biologist who has trapped and studied thousands of wild hogs,

Joe Corn is tall and lean, in his late forties, with curly dark hair and blue eyes that sometimes betray an unscientific amusement at the hogginess of wild hogs. For example, he was describing a type of wire pen used in trapping hogs, and he said that the pen had no ceiling and was of a height that one could lean over and look down at the hogs; but, he added, one should never do that. I asked why, and he said, “Because they’ll jump up and bite your face.” And that look—amusement combined with a sort of admiration—lit his eyes.

Now I’m going to say something here that I hope doesn’t sound too cornball. I believe that Frazier, in naming as many people as he does in his pieces, is consciously rescuing them from oblivion – the oblivion that surely awaits us all. As a master writer, a writer of works that will endure so long as there are eyes to read them, he has the power to do that. My belief is based on the slenderest evidence. In “A Lonesome Death Remembered,” an exploration of the sources of Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” Frazier writes, “Dylan’s poetry has caused Hattie Carroll’s name, and the sorrow and true lonesomeness of her death, to stick in people’s minds.” And at the end of the piece, he says, “And if it weren’t for Dylan, nothing more would have been said about Hattie Carroll.” Frazier is aware of art’s preservative effect. Thanks to Frazier’s art, Joe Corn, Virginia Allen, Burt Swersey, Sue Van Hook, Stealhead Joe, et al. won’t disappear; they’ll live on in his splendid reporting pieces.

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