I first read Ian Frazier, much like many who have read Ian Frazier, in the pages of the New Yorker. His name was already familiar to me for his work as a humorist: he wrote, among other things, the “Cursing Mommy” columns. But it was his quasi-serialized travelogue that later went on to be published, in much fuller form, as the book Travels in Siberia that really caught my attention. He’d written exquisite nonfiction before this (Great Plains, On the Rez), but I’m a helpless Russophile, and Travels in Siberia seemed specifically designed for me. It’s a vast, calm, sometimes chilling account of a journey through a landscape with similar attributes. It’s one of my favorite books for its realistic, measured, and patient voice–attributes which are nowhere to be found in the book (and persona) that Frazier was in town to promote this Sunday, November 11, at Common Good Books in Saint Paul.
The Cursing Mommy’s Book of Days, Frazier’s newest work, is billed as a novel. Hearing him read it, though, you might mistake it for stand-up comedy. Not only are the yarns the mommy weaves hilarious, but the mommy’s trademark breakdowns into expletive-ridden tirades are also pure comedic gold. Frazier has found, in his “mommy,” a voice that nearly everyone can relate to: who doesn’t once in a while want to succumb to the simple frustrations of their day-to-day challenges? Certainly the standing-room crowd in attendance on Sunday sympathized. Laughter erupted at nearly every sentence’s end, and the smiles didn’t fade as long as the mommy’s words were flowing. Frazier kept it tame for the most part, only launching into a full-on tantrum toward the end. This revealed a great deal of Frazier’s skill as a humorist: he doesn’t depend on his gimmick to win the audience over, but he knows precisely when to let it fly.
To kick off the reading, the proprietor of Common Good Books, Garrison Keillor, gave a brief introduction. He recapped Ian Frazier’s bibliography, making mention of the Siberian tome and its relative lack of commercial success (I felt privileged to be among the few who had purchased it). Keillor also led off the Q&A session by lobbing a meatball of a segue: “The Cursing Mommy,” Mr. Keillor proposed, “doesn’t resemble your wife or mother. So what’s the inspiration?”
“That’s correct,” Frazier corroborated. “My wife does ask me to state for the record that she is NOT the cursing mommy.” He went on to describe his inspiration: she is culled from a childhood memory of an opera-trained neighbor whose potty-mouth carried for hundreds of yards. One questioner was curious about the differences in his approach to editing his “serious” books of nonfiction and these “more playful” works. Said Frazier, “With nonfiction, the goal is to be factually accurate, so that takes longer. With The Cursing Mommy, I’m basically just writing curse words in all-caps. I got a great gig!”
I usually find the columns pretty funny in the magazine; seeing Frazier read them, though, you realize just how stupendous a feat this is. Somehow, this modest-looking, middle-aged, ball-cap-wearing writer seems perfectly suited to perform the diatribes attributed to his crafty, sloe gin guzzling character. The lesson I came away with was that it doesn’t matter who reads or performs or interprets her; she appeals to just about everyone because there’s a little cursing mommy in us all.
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