Ian Frazier alternates laughs with road trips

"Travels in Siberia," Michael Merschel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 544 pages. NEW YORK -- When Ian Frazier writes funny, it is devastatingly funny. Think of short pieces such as "Coyote v. Acme," wherein the world's most hapless cartoon predator ...

Ian Frazier

"Travels in Siberia," Michael Merschel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 544 pages.

NEW YORK -- When Ian Frazier writes funny, it is devastatingly funny. Think of short pieces such as "Coyote v. Acme," wherein the world's most hapless cartoon predator sues the world's worst mail-order purveyor of rocket-powered skates. Or "The Cursing Mommy Cookbook," where a frustrated homemaker screams -- well, you'll need to look that one up yourself.

That kind of writing has earned him two Thurber Prizes for American Humor and recognition as "America's greatest essayist" (Los Angeles Times) and "one of America's funniest living writers" (Publishers Weekly).

But when Frazier writes long-form nonfiction, things can turn bleak, at least in terms of geography. "Great Plains" (1989) took him to parts of America that many people consider flyover territory. "On the Rez" (2000) took him to the impoverished Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

With his latest, he's gone to a place synonymous with pain and isolation. "Travels in Siberia" charts 16 years of travel to a region that spans eight time zones and one-twelfth of the world's land mass.


What's the link between the two sides of his writing personality? It's difficult even for him to explain.

He insists that his nonfiction is not some kind of self-punishment -- even though "Travels in Siberia" includes a 9,000-mile road trip from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean in a Renault van that's about as dependable as a pair of those Acme skates. Along his journeys, he endures leeches, moody guides, post-Soviet "environmental grimness," mosquitoes that attack "as if shot from a fire hose" and a stunning lack of modern plumbing.

Why does he do it?

"It just seems like everybody covers the same thing," he explained during an interview at the BookExpo America in New York. "Do we need another book about the south of France? The south of France is great. But I'm not going write the 15th book about the south of France."

Readers will be delighted that he did not.

Frazier has crafted a book for armchair travelers to get lost in, be transported by, marvel at. He conveys his infatuation with Russia's people, literature, history and landscape in a way that's infectious, and he backs it up with the exhaustive research and graceful writing skills that come with being a veteran New Yorker staff writer.

Put simply, he finds joy in the journey and knows how to share it.

"I really like just going anywhere," he said. "Just the feeling of moving is pleasant to me. When a vehicle I am in starts to move, it's just really pleasant. Being somewhere, it's almost as if you're a totally new person. It's a fantasy that a change in geography changes yourself. And as you get older you realize that it doesn't. And that's kind of a sad moment when you realize it."


His travels enable him to find connections between locations as seemingly opposite as Siberia and West Texas.

"This is something I have thought a lot about because I love both places," he said. "And -- why? Well, first, just horizon. It's just great to have a horizon with nothing really there, you know?"

Both places are dotted with little towns -- he singles out the great ranch town of Matador, Texas, as an example -- that have struggled as young people leave, buildings are boarded up and a modern visitor wonders, "Why did this ever exist?"

"And at that point, the similarities stop," he said. "The two places diverge. Because if you look at a place like Matador, it was a dream. It was like a mirage, if you want to be technical because the dream maybe didn't materialize -- it was just heat shimmers. But all of those little places, they were a dream.

"Many of the little places in Siberia were nightmares."

The connection between his humor writing and his longer nonfiction is harder to figure out, he said.

"Humor is poetry, nonfiction is usually prose," he wrote in a recent e-mail. "The one makes me long for the other. I go back and forth between them, always missing the one I'm not writing at the moment. Sometimes, I do both in a day."

Earlier this year, Frazier edited an anthology, "Humor Me: An Anthology of Funny Contemporary Writing (Plus Some Great Old Stuff Too)." Some of the pieces in the book will provoke bust-a-gut guffaws. Others will inspire nervous chuckles, of the "Am I supposed to be laughing?" variety.


Asked what makes him laugh, Frazier rattles off a long list of legends, starting with Jonathan Winters ("a fellow Ohioan ... my first love"), then writes that it might be easier to list what he doesn't like.

He's not crazy about cruel comedy -- Don Rickles, the TV show "Punk'd." "Hate seeing people humiliated," he writes. "Not because I'm so nice myself -- more because I'm squeamish. As I get older I am less and less enthusiastic about gross jokes (though I've done a lot of them myself). ... I think as I get older, disgusting bodily stuff reminds me too much of mortality."

If the search for a unified theory about his work is elusive even for him, he can, at least, offer a simple connection between humor and "Travels in Siberia. "

Russia, he said in his e-mail, is a very funny country.

"As people, Russians are hilarious," he said. "Russia produced Gogol, one of the world's very few great writers (Twain, Beckett, Flannery O'Connor) who are also completely funny. Solzhenitsyn is funny, and he doesn't even bother to stop and laugh.

"Russian humor is, of course, darker than dark. It's slapstick comedy in which you take wild pratfalls, but then actually break your back and die."

Travels in Siberia

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