Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Great Plains by Ian Frazier

Ian Frazier is a long-time New Yorker writer, and one of the few who straddles the line between the two kinds of writing they're known best for: serious, boots-on-the-ground reportage full of checked facts and quotes, on the one hand, and whimsical, throw-these-two-odd-facts-together-at-high-speed humor pieces. So he's both John McPhee and S.J. Perelman, alternately. (Calvin Trillin is somewhat similar, but he's spent the vast majority of his career on the silly side, and is not as strongly identified with the New Yorker to begin with.)

Luckily for me, I like the work of both Fraziers. I think I discovered him on the silly side, with his classic collections Dating Your Mom and Coyote V. Acme (I think I found both of them remaindered at a mall B. Dalton after Christmas some time in the mid '90s), and followed him through the newer books Lamentations of the Father, The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days and Gone to New York (which isn't exactly a humor book, but is closer in tone to those than to his serious reportage).

But at some point I discovered there was a serious Frazier as well, and figured I should give that one a try, with Travels in Siberia and Family and now this book. In fact, I've been mostly working backwards through Frazier, since Family was a mid-90s book and this one came along in 1989, his first big reported book.

I should probably officially say here that "this book" is Great Plains, in case this post ever gets separated from its title. It's a look at the region of the title, the vast grassy plains in the middle of our continent (well, it's mine and Frazier's; I don't know where you live), from a personal and historical and random-facts point of view. Frazier lived in Montana for three years -- researching this book, more or less, or at least that looks like the reason three decades later.

It's not a long book -- the text ends on page 214 in my edition, though the notes and index run until page 292 -- and is only loosely organized. Frazier was interested in the history of this vast region, and in particular about the Native American groups that lived there. Well, interested, from the evidence of this book, about the end of their time there, since history is all about times when things change and people die.

So Frazier drove around the Plains states, in extended journeys over several years, talking to historians and old folks and random locals, to learn as many things as he could and piece them together his own way. He tells that story afterward, with no obvious organizing principle -- he could have gone by state, or traced each of his journeys, and worked historically, but didn't, in any case. Instead, he tells stories about the Plains in what feels like a natural way, as if each one was coming to him in turn. Great Plains was certainly more carefully constructed than it appears, but it appears simple and direct, like a two-lane road across a great plain.

The main criticism I could see of Great Plains is that it's like Gertrude Stein's Oakland: there's no there there; it's a book that wanders aimlessly down back roads, real ones and historical metaphors, for a while until it ends. But I think that was the point, and it's not useful to criticize a book for doing exactly what it sets out to do. (Noting that aim, and the success at achieving it, is entirely reasonable.)

This isn't my favorite Frazier book, even on the serious side. Family is more unified and Tales from Siberia has more outrageous stories from an even larger, even more harsh plain on the other side of the world. But as a first serious book from a then-young author, it's an impressive achievement. And it might well be better to people who know those plains themselves.

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