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.

Friday, July 15, 2016

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

Ian Frazier’s great new collection Hogs Wild consists of twenty-three reporting pieces, eighteen of which originally appeared in The New Yorker. I remember reading the New Yorker articles when they appeared in the magazine. They’re among the glories of New Yorker reportage – in the same league as work by A. J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, and John McPhee.

However, in this post, I want to focus on one of Hogs Wild’s five non-New Yorker pieces – “The One That Got Away” – which is new to me. It’s an elegy for a forty-eight-year-old fishing guide named Joseph Adam Randolph, also known as Stealhead Joe. Frazier writes, “The misspelling of his self-bestowed moniker was intentional. If he didn’t actually steal fish, he came close, and he wanted people to hear echoes of the trickster and the outlaw in his name.” Stealhead Joe was a guide on Oregon’s Deschutes River; he specialized in catching sea-run fish called steelhead. On or about November 4, 2012, he drove his truck to a gravel pit, parked, ran a hose from the exhaust pipe to the cab, and asphyxiated himself. Two months earlier, Frazier had spent six days fishing with him on the Deschutes. Frazier says he planned to write a profile of him for Outside magazine.

“The One That Got Away” contains a couple of memorable scenes. One is a description of Frazier wading in the Deschutes for the first time:

An hour after we met, we waded out into the middle of the Deschutes in a long, straight stretch above town. The wading freaked me out, and I was frankly holding on to Joe. He was six-five, broad shouldered, with a slim, long-waisted swimmer’s body. I wore chest waders, and Joe had put on his waders, too, in deference to the colder water. I held tightly to his wader belt. Close up, I smelled the Marlboro smell. When I was a boy, many adults, and almost all adult places and pastimes, smelled of cigarettes. Joe had the same tobacco-smoke aroma I remembered from dads of fifty years ago. I relaxed slightly; I might have been ten years old. Joe held my hand.

The other passage that sticks in my mind isn’t really a scene; it’s a blunt (for Frazier) expression of philosophy:

The paths along the river that have been made by anglers’ feet are well worn and wide. Many who come to fish the Deschutes are driven by a deep, almost desperate need. So much of the world is bullshit. This river is not.

“The One That Got Away” is a significant piece in Frazier's oeuvre. Stealhead Joe is one of his most memorable “characters.”

Postscript: The Outside version of “The One That Got Away,” including some excellent photos of Stealhead Joe, can be found here

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