One man's New York: funny, ugly, fascinating

New Yorker contributor Ian Frazier offers a penetrating, writerly look at the city

It's hard not to be at least somewhat curious about a man who grew up in Ohio, moved to Manhattan, then to Brooklyn, eventually took off for Montana, and finally settled in New Jersey.

Who is this vagabond, and has he no sense of geography?

On the contrary, he's Ian Frazier - longtime New Yorker magazine writer - and he is steeped in geography. In fact, a sense of place is what Gone to New York: Adventures in the City - this pleasing, humorous, but also keenly trenchant collection of his writing - is all about.

Perhaps it was his idyllic childhood in Hudson, Ohio, that turned Frazier into a bemused outsider whenever he is anywhere else. (Growing up in Hudson "was completely, even unfairly, sweet," he tells us. "I would never be even a tenth as at home anywhere again.")

But here Frazier is writing about New York and his years in the city, bringing his small-town boy's sensibility to bear on a very different realm.

Frazier's Manhattan is not chic and sophisticated. He gravitates instead to the gritty. He lived within sight of the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, an unromantic neighborhood if ever there was one, especially in the 1970s when Frazier became a resident.

It was the kind of place where at Christmastime the holiday lights were intertwined with the razor wire guarding the tops of fences. (Frazier's apartment was so primitive that the men's room at the Mobil station on the corner served as his bathroom.)

Later he lived in Brooklyn with his wife and children - a cozier existence, but still one in which he confronted murder, homelessness, and teen gangs, and fretted over the garbage draped in the branches of trees.

But Frazier's essays (most of which appeared in The New Yorker) freely mix the ugly with the sublime, and the scary with the fascinating and the funny - just as does the city itself.

When a woman collapses on the street, Frazier is moved by the efforts of two strangers to save her. When he has an oddly anonymous encounter with a librarian he recognizes from a different part of the city, he is entertained by the coincidence. When he strolls through Queens, he notes "rosebushes and sidewalks stained blotchy purple by crushed berries from the overhanging mulberry trees, and a scent of curry ... in the air" and then, as a jet flies alarmingly low overhead, he thinks to himself, "I am happy to be someplace in Queens."

Even in the anonymous urban environment, Frazier is alert and attentive to his fellow residents. These tales include vivid profiles of characters like Gary, his Romanian landlord and Martin Tytell, Frazier's typewriter repairman. (Yes, he still writes on one.)

The Tytell essay itself is a gem, an only-in-New-York-type yarn about genius found off the beaten trail which Frazier unfolds with affectionate precision. He does the same for Clifford Holland, the man whose sad story lies behind the Holland Tunnel.

New York is not Frazier's only muse. He is equally fascinated by America's prairie states and has written about them, notably in "Great Plains" a book enlivened with the same feel for off-beat detail and anecdote. Frazier is also a Thurber Prize- winner. Collections like "Dating Your Mom" and "Coyote v. Acme" showcase his deadpan comic talents.

"Gone to the City" has a shape a bit like Frazier's travels. It zigzags all over.

One moment he offers a worldweary New Yorker's humor with observations like his notion that rents in his old neighborhood "are probably about the same as they were in Carthage, or Nineveh, or Peking under the Tangs." A paragraph later he charms with a description of a scene in Chinatown, complete with small, bright birds in wooden cages who call out to sparrows on a fire escape even as two men unroll an illuminated Chinese scroll.

Readers who like to graze will enjoy doing so here - jumping from an account of the graffiti in Columbia University's library to a list of the smells in Brooklyn.

But there is also a particular pleasure in saving "Out of Ohio," the final essay, till last. It tells how Frazier's determined grandmother pushed him out of the nest and into New York, and it's the key to understanding everything else in the book.

It's also a lovely read. It finishes just as Frazier first arrives in New York. It's a mild March afternoon at the end of the work day. He smells "coffee, bus exhaust, and fingernail polish" in the air.

That intense jolt of feeling - a rush of sensation that is shared by a crowd and yet somehow leaves one so solitary - will be achingly familiar to those who love New York, and even to those who do not.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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