Ian Frazier is the rare writer who combines the wit of a humorist with the curiosity of a reporter. The former would be more than enough to celebrate his contribution to American letters. He has written some of the funniest pieces of the past 40 years, such as “Coyote vs. Acme,” in which Wile E. Coyote’s attorney seeks compensatory damages for the mail-order devices that have harmed his client.
But Frazier has also produced straightforward works of journalism. His latest book, “Hogs Wild: Selected Reporting Pieces,” collects two dozen works of reportage, written from 2000 to 2015, that cover a random assortment of topics and present a unique perspective on contemporary society.
A few of these essays are short “Talk of the Town” pieces from the New Yorker, with topics ranging from an elementary school’s discussion of derogatory racial terms to the colorful New Jersey bus driver — he lined his dashboard with toy ducks and tossed snowballs at passing police officers — who became more somber after 9/11.
Longer pieces showcase Frazier’s wide range of interests and feature an eclectic mix of characters. In one essay, he goes fishing with a man known as Stealhead Joe, an accomplished guide on Oregon’s Deschutes River. In another, police and metallurgists try to determine whether a croissant-shaped object that crashed through the roof of a house in New Jersey is a meteorite. There’s a piece on the fear that Asian carp may harm ecosystems if they infiltrate the Mississippi River and Great Lakes, and one on a Dutch artist who makes videos of wind-powered kinetic sculptures, an effect Frazier describes as “like seeing a haystack do the Macarena.”
The title piece explains concerns over the feral hog, of which there are 5 million in the U.S. “What do wild hogs do that’s so bad? Oh, not much,” Frazier writes, before giving us a page-long description of the damage they inflict: eating the eggs of endangered species, causing erosion and so on. He calls them “bristled vacuum-cleaner bags attached to snouts.”
As you can tell, the Frazier wit is present even in his most serious essays. In a piece on Death Valley National Park, site of Charles Manson’s hideout, Frazier writes that he didn’t mind playing on a deserted golf course because “I am such an indifferent golfer that I prefer there be no witnesses.” In the midst of a technical description of polymers and hydrocarbon molecules for a piece on the process of growing plastic substitutes from mushrooms, he writes, “high-school chemistry, don’t fail me now.”
We’re a long way from the zaniness of Frazier’s Cursing Mommy essays, but “Hogs Wild” offers subtler pleasures: humor-infused portraits of eccentrics and insightful analyses of the modern world.
Michael Magras is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer and Miami Herald.
By: Ian Frazier.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 375 pages, $26.