Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody (Magill Book Reviews)
Ian Frazier is a typical NEW YORKER writer, so convinced of his own drollery that he often sees no need to exercise it. The first three--and earliest written--essays in this book keep promising a payoff, either comic or insightful, that is simply never delivered. Instead, Frazier presents mundane, personalized accounts of a town in Kansas celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of a local Indian massacre, an expert fly fisherman who ran a tackle shop in midtown Manhattan for many years, and syndicated household-hints columnist Heloise, both the original, a military wife, and the daughter, an upscale Texan who has written the column since her mother’s death. All are top-heavy with accounts of the writer’s automobile journeys and descriptions of nondescript motel rooms, and burdened by Frazier’s annoying penchant for page-long lists of unenlightening details.
The last two, most recent essays, however, are small gems of perceptive observation. “Bear News” is a witty, informative, and richly anecdotal account of the tenuous and controversial relationship between men and bears in the vicinity of Montana’s Glacier National Park. “Komar and Melamid” is a hilarious and touching profile of the two expatriate Soviet satirical artists. Their own fractured-English accounts of maintaining creative integrity in both the Soviet Union and the capitalist West are simultaneously appalling and inspiring.
Overall, the book reveals a definite maturation in Frazier’s style; it also suggests that a reporter is generally only as good as his subject.
Nobody Better, Better than Nobody (Magill's Literary Annual 1988)
Ian Frazier is a young writer of humorous and entertaining articles for The New Yorker, where the five essays collected here first appeared. Born in Cleveland, Frazier was graduated from Harvard University in 1973; at Harvard he was a writer on The Harvard Lampoon, the students’ famous humor magazine. Almost all Frazier’s professional career has been spent at The New Yorker. His first book, Dating Your Mom (1986), is a collection of satirical pieces also from that magazine; they display a biting wit unlike the gentle humor found in his second book.
Frazier’s background plays an important role in his writings. He demonstrates the unbounded inquisitiveness of a young man who came of age in the 1960’s. He also blends, in unusual imagery and unique metaphors, his urban and his rural experiences. His are the views of a modern city dweller who also deeply appreciates time spent in the wilderness. Frazier is always predominantly a member of his generation, one who lives comfortably with rock music and fast food and who can relate well to most living creatures.
Foremost in all Frazier’s essays is his fine use of detail. Every place he visits he renders exactly by geographical location, population, local terrain, and cultural features; he delights in telling his reader of the history of places, how they have changed over the years, and their current conditions (often both spiritual and physical). Detail also abounds in his cataloging of minutia; often it is the sounds of names that he especially savors.
Competing for Frazier’s attention with the places he describes are the unusual people he meets. He provides his reader with all the particulars necessary to form a full and vivid portrait of a person; he notes physical appearance, clothing choices, vocal inflections, word selections, and even facial expressions and physical gestures. Thereby, his subjects always come alive. Nothing seems left out of their descriptions: The vital, the trivial, the everyday, and the unique details all merge to form memorable encounters with these persons.
“An Angler at Heart,” the longest essay in this volume covers the work habits and the noteworthy career of Jim Deren, proprietor of The Angler’s Roost, a small but thriving fishing-equipment business in the center of Manhattan. Obviously delighting in Deren’s company, Frazier becomes a frequent patron of the store, which can comfortably accommodate only three customers at a time because of its small size. Deren crams into his shop an enormous supply of all types of fishing poles, lines, reels, flies, clothing, books, and camping equipment. For Frazier, an avid angler, a visit to Deren’s shop is the equivalent to a small boy’s stop at a candy store. Although it is piled up in precarious stacks that often collapse, all Deren’s multitude of stock is essential for a serious fisherman. Among the numerous exotic flies in Deren’s concern are Cinnamon Ant, Leaf Roller, Damselfly, Quill Gordon, Sulphur Dun, Brown Drake, Silver Doctor, Warden’s Worry, and Thunder and Lightning. Also available are several flies that Deren himself has invented, a practice he began as a boy.
Even more vital and exciting than the fishing equipment Deren sells, however, is the advice he gives. Advice, Frazier explains to the reader, is a major contribution to good angling. Deren’s sage counsel has drawn famous figures to his store for more than forty years, among them singer Bing Crosby, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and musician Benny Goodman. Frazier depicts the whole range of customers who seek out Deren’s store; they include engineers, technicians, artists, and oil-company executives. Some of their fishermen’s conversations with Deren are recorded by Frazier, as well as debates over types and quality of equipment and the ever-present arguments over which flies to use and where and when. This essay serves as a memorial to a remarkable man, for Deren died in 1983.
Frazier is also impressed by Poncé Evans (full name, Poncé Kiah Marchelle Heloise Cruse Evans), the young woman who writes the “Hints from Heloise” column syndicated in five hundred newspapers in the United States. She inherited the column from her mother, Heloise Cruse, who died in 1977. In the essay “Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody,” the reader learns of the elder Heloise’s life from birth, including her medical and marital history. Most fascinating is the section devoted to Heloise’s founding of the column and its phenomenal popularity. It has been the most profitable column ever handled by the King Features Syndicate.
Heloise’s daughter is a woman close to Frazier’s age who shares some of his generation’s influences. He seems fairly comfortable in her presence...
(The entire section is 1958 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1988)
Booklist. LXXXIII, April 15, 1987, p. 1245.
Chicago Tribune. July 5, 1987, XIV, p. 3.
Kirkus Reviews. LV, April 1, 1987, p. 530.
Library Journal. CXII, June 15, 1987, p. 70.
The New York Times. April 16, 1987, p. 19.
The New York Times Book Review. XCII, May 3, 1987, p. 9.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXI, March 20, 1987, p. 58.
Time. CXXIX, May 25, 1987, p. 67.