'Hogs Wild' showcases New Yorker writer Ian Frazier at his best

From undomesticated animals to rap music, crime, and homelessness, Frazier spins real life into a variety of vivid and compassionate stories.

Hogs Wild: Selected Reporting Pieces By Ian Frazier Farrar, Straus and Giroux 384 pp.

Ian Frazier is the neighbor who stops by for coffee and starts telling you stories. And you drop everything to listen. Hogs Wild, a new collection of Mr. Frazier’s reported pieces, makes you want to drop everything and start reading.

Frazier, a long-time New Yorker writer, tackles disparate topics. The book takes its name from his absorbing piece about feral pigs, which he calls “bristled vacuum-cleaner bags attached to snouts...." Frazier explains that they have become a big problem: “Of all the domesticated animals, none become feral more readily, or survive better in the wild, than the hog.” And that’s why there are millions of them, largest in number in states that voted for George W. Bush in 2004, Frazier observes.

Hogs do enormous damage – to both natural and man-made environments. For example, they “root up rare and diverse species of plants....” Frazier’s visits to hog-heavy places in the South to trek deep into the woods with hog experts to see wild hogs are Jack-London exciting.

Frazier is admirably non-judgmental. He provides vivid, startlingly fresh, often humorous, descriptions – along with historical backstory. But he mostly lets readers form their own opinions. In the final pages about feral pigs Frazier describes going to a festival where, in an arena, dogs corner and hector captured hogs. Here he lets a little girl provide commentary. As two dogs, heavily protected against being gored, race to engage – spectators transfixed by the drama – she cries, “Run, pig!  Run!” A woman nearby concurs. “She’s right!  What are they doing!” Frazier continues:  “For a moment we all hesitated, uneasy and off balance; then we returned to the business at hand.”

By contrast, “The Rap” is totally urban. Frazier’s intrepid reporting here takes place in thoroughly dodgy sections of the New York boroughs of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens, where he hangs with Derrick Parker, a sometime cop and now security specialist who focuses on crime in the “rap and hip-hop world.” Mr. Derrick, Frazier says, “can tell you who shot Tupac Shakur and Jam Master Jay....  Just because a murder is unsolved doesn’t mean nobody knows who did it.”

Frazier takes you places that make you grasp his book with white knuckles. He describes meeting the astonishingly congenial Derrick at a strip club in the Bronx. “The club is in a low gray brick building with black security gates.... [T]he wider neighborhood offers auto junkyards of crashed vehicles with their air bags deployed, vast no-name warehouses ... [and] unmuffled cars and motorcycles....” Frazier offers no grand insights about violence and rap music, no this-will-fix-it conclusions. But his matter-of-fact descriptions encapsulate a slice of American life, and provide self-knowledge that might somehow help.

Frazier’s unquenchable curiosity is remarkable. He will return again and again to the venue of his topic till he’s captured its essence. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of this is in his monumental book “Travels in Siberia.” Frazier makes a number of visits to this notoriously cold and remote place.  His gift to readers resulting from his willingness to endure remarkable hardships is not just vivid travelogue, but an illuminating view – the beginning of a deeper understanding of Russia, its land and its people.

Parts of “Siberia” appeared in The New Yorker, which, along with other major magazines, was where “Hogs Wild” pieces were first published.  Understandably, given that he lives near one of the world’s most dynamic cities, “The Rap” isn’t Frazier's only piece about New York.

“The Antidote” exposes the achingly sad story behind the tragedy of drug addiction – and an antidote drug used to reverse overdoses. “Blue Bloods” provides a fascinating account about horseshoe crabs, and about crab fans around greater New York who study these ancient creatures. Frazier’s deadpan realism can’t hide his compassion as he examines this colorful but often discordant world.

In “Hungry Minds,” Frazier describes helping homeless individuals in New York discover their voice at a writers’ workshop – in league with the soup kitchen at the Church of the Holy Apostles. About the homeless, who seem to have lost their identity, he comments, “The alchemy of writing gives everybody who’s been in the workshop an extra dimension: along with possessing a name and a face ... writing even a few lines makes the person who does it more substantial and real.”

Meanwhile, Frazier himself makes the homeless “more substantial and real” to readers, and homelessness, along with everything else he writes about, even more poignant and meaningful, in this brilliant collection.

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