Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Just Read: Gone to New York by Ian Frazier

"To a suburbanite just come from the city, the scratching of branches and leaves on metal is the sound of being home."

After writing a bunch of lukewarm reviews over the past few weeks, it's nice to come across a book I really enjoyed. Gone to New York is an essay collection by Ian Frazier, and it ends up being mostly about his relationship with New York City. Frazier (we learn, in bits and pieces throughout this book) grew up in a small Ohio town, went to Harvard, and then moved to New York soon after graduating. The last essay in the book, "Out of Ohio," covers the pre-New York part of his life, in an attempt to explain why he came here. Frazier lived on Canal Street for many years, then moved to Brooklyn (with three years in Montana squeezed in there somewhere), and now is in Montclair, NJ. This isn't an autobiography by any means, but it is a series of views of one city by one man, over the course of nearly three decades, and so we do learn a bit about him, as well as about the city.

The book starts out with a whole lot of "Talk" pieces from the New Yorker (yes, it's them again), each of which is a little gem, showing one aspect of city life in tight close-up, but the book also contains several longer essays, with "Canal Street" early on and several substantial pieces to finish up the book. Frazier has a good reporter's eye for a telling detail, but also allows his stories to include himself -- to even be about himself, if that's where the real story is. "Canal Street" is the longest piece; it's a look at the life of that neighborhood (right on the edge of Chinatown, and itself the major artery from New Jersey to Brooklyn) and of Frazier's life there in the '70s and '80s. There's also an interesting essay, "Typewriter Man," mostly about a man who repairs old manual typewriters.

I started the essay "Route 3," which is in part about taking the bus home from the Port Authority Bus Terminal and looking at the scenery along the way, on Route 3, in a bus, on the way home today, which makes me real damn close to being the Platonic ideal audience for this book. (I even bought it at a bookstore in Montclair.) "Route 3" was the essay I identified with the most, obviously, since I am a family man commuting in via bus on Route 3 every day (even if my suburb is another half-hour further out and noticeably shabbier than Frazier's).

This book also contains the epic story (through three essays written over a decade) of Frazier's struggle with bags in trees. There's something very New York, in all the best senses, about this -- Frazier was annoyed by seeing so many plastic bags in trees, so he and a friend set out to do something about it. New York (like other big cities, I suppose) is full of people with lots of energy and plans, and most of those plans are to make things better.

The book also contains a Foreword by Jamaica Kinkaid (to whom the book is also dedicated, which strikes me as some kind of faster-than-light log-rolling), which is pleasant, but doesn't really say anything more than that Frazier has been her friend for years, and that they both are good writers. (Which we already knew.)

Non-New Yorkers may not get as much out of this book as I did, but anyone who likes or is fascinated by cities would enjoy this book; Frazier is an excellent writer on cities, and New York is one of the iconic cities of our time.

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