On Sundays, Gothamist puts its own opinions aside, and asks friends and strangers to write Op-Ed pieces for us. If you want to submit one, email Jake. Here's a review of Ian Frazier's new book, by Ben Cosgrove-- sounds like a winner to us:
Has anyone ever written a single, great, quintessentially New York novel? Or a single, great, quintessential history of the city?
If anything, the books that feel most "New York" are those that capture (or captured) the city in one of its galvanic, myriad moods. Bonfire of the Vanities. Bright Lights, Big City. Another Country. And what about poetry? Frank O'Hara's slim volume of verse, Lunch Poems, is as approachable a series of love letters to the city as one is likely to find, but it feels a bit dated now -- wonderful, yes, and still capable of kick-starting a shitty day, but dated. Even Leaves of Grass -- still exhilaratingly new and humane exactly 150 years after it first appeared -- even that astonishing creation didn't so much capture the city as celebrate, in full cry, the improbability of anyone ever fully, finally defining "Manhatta," Brooklyn and the rest.
Paradoxically, it seems, the short and middling-length essay might well be the best suited to the task of revealing, bit by bit, the enormous city's heart -- and its brain, and guts -- and for the past several decades, few practitioners of that short, tricky form have shown us as much about the city as Ian Frazier has. In all sorts of publications -- The Atlantic, Mother Jones, Double Take and, especially and most representatively, The New Yorker -- Frazier has chronicled his own journey from Ohio to New York to, now, New Jersey, all the while focusing on the sorts of anomalies and tiny details -- the slant of a sidewalk, a street vendor's cry, a neighbor's voice, the mystery of plastic bags caught in trees -- that appear to mean so little, but in his gaze and through his craft (okay, let's say it -- through his art) assume significance and, occasionally, something like grace.
The man can flat out write, and in his new, deeply engaging collection of "occasionals," ruminations and Talk of the Town pieces, Gone to New York (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $22), Frazier offers up a series of funny, moving, masterfully crafted glimpses into the city (and Ian Frazier's life in and out of the city) across the past 30 years.
There's the three-page "To Mr. Winslow," which lovingly follows Frazier's intermittent, months-long vigil (if such a thing as an intermittent vigil even exists) over an impromptu shrine to a murdered drama teacher in Prospect Park. Or the crazed, hilarious description of the author and friends blasting a shotgun at an old bookcase in his loft on Canal Street -- just because, damn it. (Criminally reckless and, yes, drunken behavior never sounded so appealing.) Or ruining his car driving through a massive puddle, against his wife's wishes, on Ninth Avenue in Brooklyn while trying to get out of town for a vacation.
"[Water came through the floor of the car. Then it came up to the seats. My wife and I were saying various things to each other … Terrified that I might impede traffic, I leaped out into the waist-deep water. Old tires and forty-ounce malt liquor bottles were bobbing around beside me. I began to push the car, which was not difficult, because it was floating."
The tale ends, neatly but not too neatly, with our hero walking home burdened by seemingly half his belongings and running into a near-stranger he'd introduced quite briefly earlier in the piece ("we both accepted the possibility that I was insane and decided to overlook it"). Frazier tells the whole story in two pages, and yet seems to encompass an entire small and utterly familiar world.
This book is filled with such moments of clarity, and wonder. Go the bookstore. Pick it up. Flip through it. You'll see.
(Warning: The book also includes an awkward, overly precious introduction by Jamaica Kincaid -- a writer who, more often than not, is quite wonderful, making the mess here even more unfortunate and inexplicable. Frazier, it seems, is her "dearest friend in all the still sphere-shaped world" -- huh? -- and her "true, true brother, the only brother I have ever needed." Readers can profitably skip the prefatory blather and get right to the good stuff.)
Ben Cosgrove has been reviewing books for the past ten years or so (for Salon, the LA Weekly, San Francisco Chronicle, and many others), and is always looking for new places to ply his ink-stained trade.