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Though the collection is not seamless, the 22 short sketches harbor some truly loony stuff. Founded on vaguely recognizable facets of modern American life, Frazier's pieces use to wonderful effect the babble of banking and finance, the cant of showbiz, and with particular style, the language of literature. There's an alternate view of Wuthering Heights (in which "Cathy died, but not seriously"). There's a short story overflowing with meaningful relationships. ("Now that I am grown, with a husband and a wife and children of my own . . ." muses the narrator). There's Boswell's life of Don Johnson. And there is a wickedly accurate parody of Bob Hope's golfing reminiscences. Frazier has perfect pitch for language, whether it's litigious, as in the case of Wile E. Coyote v. Acme Company or instructive, as in the tax directive wherein some actual IRS wordage is embedded. Theatrical shtick isn't scanted, either, in a Studs Turkel-ish interview in which a fatuous Comrade Stalin is recalled expounding on the art and practice of stand-up comedy. In his S.J. Perelmanic vein, Frazier is likely to do a send-up on a news item of signal silliness. Though not all the little pieces are of equal quality (one riff that doesn't quite work is a commencement lecture from a scholar possessed by demons), they are all worth reading.
And in the time it takes to read the average book just once, this text can be read over and over again—which is not such a bad idea.
"Can you imagine Wile E. Coyote suing the Acme Co. for all those faulty explosives devices that failed to work in the Road Runner cartoons? What if Boswell did a life of Don Johnson, rather than Samuel Johnson? The writer also pokes fun at Bob Hope's flawed memory about accidents and golfing gems, Stalin's theory of comedy and a bank with a great, new system of notation. It's sophisticated and it's funny."—Bob Trimble, The Dallas Morning News
"Makes Henry Kissinger look like a straight man."—David Mamet
"A few years ago, when the title piece from this collection appeared in The New Yorker, it lit up fax machines all over town . . . Now this masterpiece of the humorous essay spearheads a collection of similar gems."—Time Out New York
"To write ineffable lyrics, page-turning thrillers or profound epics—none of this is easy. But to write something that is truly funny—so funny that your eyes water and you laugh out loud—this may be the hardest and rarest thing of all. Ian Frazier does it with apparent ease."—The Kansas City Star
"Coyote v. Acme should make it clear that Frazier hasn't lost his gift for amusement. If you're in the right mood, it's possible even to scan the contents page without cracking up."—James Marcus, Newsday
"In Coyote v. Acme, a collection of (very) funny pieces, Ian Frazier separates issues ('Young Elvis, Old Elvis') from nonissues ('Old Elvis, Dead Elvis'); contemplates a life-insurance questionnaire for daytime drama characters; and has fun with critics' favorite crutch: positing cities (or mortality, or the English language) as a novel's character."—New York magazine
COYOTE V. ACME
The Last Segment
At a signal from the sound room, the tapes stopped spinning, and one by one the big thousand-watt lights winked and darkened. Then Mary hugged Murray, and Ted came over and hugged them both, and then Lou, usually so uncomfortable with physical displays, took all three in a bear hug that had them gasping for breath through their tears. Then Grant came onto the set and announced that he had bought each of them an Arabian pony, which they could ride whenever they wanted. Then from someplace offstage two technicians came in carrying—literally carrying—Sue Ann. She had been so cheerful all day, but when she happened to see "MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW CANCELLED" in black-and-white in a newspaper headline, the full reality finally hit her, and she collapsed. Members of the live audience were weeping and calling out the names of their favorites, but security guards standing three-deep kept all but the most persistent behind the front rail. Thousands more waited outside in the rain to pay their respects to executive producer Stan Daniels; one at a time they were admitted,given a few seconds, and ushered out. The representative from Courier-brand tub and tile cleaner provided a cake seven tiers high (one tier for each season on the network), decorated with the titles of every episode and topped with exact replicas of the main characters whittled from basswood by an old man from the Ozarks whom Murray had met while driving cross-country. Ted and Lou, who had never been much closer off camera than on, stood staring down at the buffet table, side by side. When Ted turned and haltingly offered Lou the blazer he had worn on the show since the beginning, both men's shoulders began to shake, and they sobbed openly. Then Mary made a speech. She told everybody that she loved them and would always remember them, and if they ever felt they needed her, all they had to do was think of her and she would be there. Then she repeated the whole speech in fluent sign language, her hands trembling slightly in the waning light.
Then the staff carpenters, working with a delicacy all the more touching in such burly men, dismantled the sets and loaded them into trucks for immediate removal to the Smithsonian Institution, where they would one day be put on permanent display. The air grew heavy with the scent of diesel exhaust and leave-taking as men from the telephone company seized fire axes and began chopping away the cables. Like the wings of giant birds coming to earth, the microwave towers slowly fell. The instant that groundwater reached the boiler room, four-inch rivets started to pop and fly across the now flaming studio. Heedless of the chaos around them, members of the originalcast swayed together with their arms still entwined, their eyes distant and glazed with trance. Later they would describe how they had been transported to a faraway land where they met and conversed with the stars from every program that had ever been aired, who told them not to be downcast but to rejoice. The house orchestra played every number it knew, ending with one last rendition of the famous theme song just as dawn was breaking. The entire company watched from a nearby knoll as the lot filled with ash until only the flagpole remained; then that, too, was gone. Finally, as if waking from a dream that still held them in its grip, they made their way toward the ranks of limousines waiting to take them back to the world they'd left behind, to the people they used to be.
Little brother was never quite right after that, and in the fall he was sent away. Mama doesn't make big Sunday dinners like she did before; mostly she just calls Meals on Wheels. There was a virus going around, Papa caught it, and he died last spring. Sister married a soldier and moved to Toledo. At the old home place, only Cousin Eleanor remains. Sometimes in the evenings she tries to sit in the front room, but it's no use. There was little to keep Lloyd around any longer, so he went back on the road. At an icy intersection in a distant state, a semi-trailer full of salt blocks overturned on him, it'll be two years ago this Christmas. The other Lloyd, the one Nancy married, escaped into his work, and drove his cherry picker against some high-tension wires not twenty minutesafter attending a safety lecture sponsored by the power company. With weekday attendance down, Grandy just couldn't keep the inn running the way it used to, and he had to sell out to the Flammia brothers. They stripped the furnishings and put in a snack-meats factory. Curtis figured that he might as well have the operation; he seems fine now. His wife, while admiring his courage, nevertheless felt she had no choice but to file for divorce. Trestle still takes his strolls down Main Street, but his conversation dwells increasingly on the past. Mark became a pharmacist. Galen is presumed missing. Bev traded what she could never have for what she'd never wanted in the first place, and married Chick. They shut down the pool hall, they shut down the Grange hall, they filled in the swimming hole and put a Substance Abuse Center where the old gazebo used to be. And see the tree, how big it's grown; beneath, a simple marker, with the words "Home by Midnight" and the familiar five-pointed star of a Texas Ranger. Afternoons now, Wade stacks change in piles according to size, dreaming away behind the drive-thru window. The children are long gone, vanished into sports and other outside interests. Somewhere, invisible pens compute the swirling arithmetic of loss.
And me? I'm sitting in a bar in Gander, Newfoundland, wondering how I ever got so far from that old gravel road that runs past the fields of my memories. When I look back at the happiness I knew, it appears to me now as if through the wrong end of atelescope—tiny, remote, yet precise in every detail. I remember how we all used to assemble at the couch at five minutes to nine, each of us well supplied with blankets and refreshments to insure that we wouldn't have to budge for the next half hour. And how long those ads seemed in between! Sometimes we would joke about the "idiot box," the "vast wasteland." We didn't know what a wasteland was. Seems like ever since the cancellation I just can't put those times far enough behind me. Measure the distance by airports, pay phones, hotels, cities, women. Sure, there've been women—plenty of them. I'm not ashamed of their number, because it was from them I learned how much hurt there is in the world, and how much gentleness.
A while back a buddy of mine wrote to say that I should come home. Beneath his words I sensed a wistful tone, as if the person he was trying hardest to convince was himself. Of course, I had to say no. He may think that my refusal means I have no hope. In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth. For in spite of all I've been through, I find that I still believe in human beings. I just do. To pretend to enjoy the formulaic treatments of today would be to deny that. For seven years, an entire nation sat down as one, week after week, to watch a miracle. I know in my heart that it will happen again—maybe not next fall, or the fall after that, but someday. When it does, no one will have to ask me to come home, because wherever on the globe I may happen to be, I'll be home already.
COYOTE V. ACME. Copyright © 1996 by Ian Frazier. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador USA, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.
|The Last Segment||3|
|From the Bank with Your Money on Its Mind||8|
|Boswell's Life of Don Johnson||18|
|Where the Bodies Are Buried||23|
|Brandy by Firelight||27|
|Child of War||30|
|Thanks for the Memory||32|
|Coyote v. Acme||40|
|In the Plain Air||47|
|Ask Sherman Strong||55|
|The Afternoon of June 8, 1991||64|
|Have You Ever||68|
|Issues and Non-issues||82|
|Dial W-H-Y W-O-R-K||92|
|The Frankest Interview Yet||95|
|The Novel's Main Character||100|
|Your Face or Mine||105|
|Making "Movies" in New York||108|