Classic review: Lamentations of the Father

Ian Frazier – winner of the 2009 Thurber Prize for American Humor – turns his dry wit on everything from parenthood to global warming.

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[This review from Monitor archives originally ran on June 30, 2008.] When editors at The Atlantic Monthly celebrated their magazine’s 150th anniversary, they paid homage to the category of “humorous essay” with the works of four writers: Mark Twain, James Thurber, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ian Frazier.

Company like that is what you’d call the icing on the top of the crème de la crème. If you’re curious as to why Frazier (a longtime writer for the New Yorker) rates so high, try reading the title essay of his collection Lamentations of the Father. (It’s also the selection included to run with Twain et al.)

Capturing the rant of a contemporary dad in biblical prose, Frazier decrees, “Of the beasts of the field, and of the fishes of the sea, and of all foods that are acceptable in my sight you may eat, but not in the living room.” He goes on to implore, “Bite not, lest you be cast into quiet time. Neither drink of your own bathwater, nor bathwater of any kind” and further warns them, “For I will come to you at the first of the month and at the fifteenth of the month with the bills and a great whining and moan. ”

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Frazier’s is a dry and sometimes a dark wit. He touches on the stresses and strains of family life but also uses the absurd to mock our self-promoting and celebrity-obsessed culture.

In “Tomorrow’s Bird” he envisions himself as a pitchperson for crows (“Crows: We Want to Be Your Only Bird” is the slogan he suggests.) In “My Wife Liz” he insists he is a forgotten husband of the much-
married Elizabeth Taylor. (“Ask anyone about Ms. Taylor’s husbands and you’ll get the usual recitation of Mike Todd and Eddie Fisher and Richard Burton and John Warner and so on with never a mention of me…. It hurts to be left out.”)

Frazier’s range in this collection stretches from global warming to his wife’s ire at the way he loads the dishwasher. His career at large has caromed from a meaningful interest in the American West and native Americans (“Great Plains” and “On the Rez”) to essays on New York (“Gone to New York”) to other humorous bits (“Dating Your Mom”).

Being a funny guy doesn’t always mesh with being a smart guy. In Frazier’s case, however, the two seem one and the same.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor. Send comments to kehem@csps.com.

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