"A master of both distilled insight and utter nonsense" (The Believer), Ian Frazier is one of the most gifted chroniclers of contemporary America. Hogs Wild assembles a decade's worth of his finest essays and reportage, and demonstrates the irrepressible passions and artful digressions that distinguish his enduring body of work.
Part muckraker, part adventurer, and part raconteur, Frazier beholds, captures, and occasionally reimagines the spirit of the American experience. He travels down South to examine feral hogs, and learns that their presence in any county is a strong indicator that it votes Republican. He introduces us to a man who, when his house is hit by a supposed meteorite, hopes to "leverage" the space object into opportunity for his family, and a New York City police detective who is fascinated with rap-music-related crimes. Alongside Frazier's delight in the absurdities of contemporary life is his sense of social responsibility: there's an echo of the great reform-mindedwriters in his pieces on a soup kitchen, opioid overdose deaths on Staten Island, and the rise in homelessness in New York City under Mayor Bloomberg.
In each dizzying discovery, Hogs Wild unearths the joys of inquiry without agenda, curiosity without calculation. To read Frazier is to become a kind of social and political anthropologistastute and deeply engaged.
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About the Author
Ian Frazier is the author of Great Plains, The Fish's Eye, On the Rez, Family, and Travels in Siberia, as well asCoyote v. Acme and Lamentations of the Father. A frequent contributor to The New Yorker, he lives in Montclair, New Jersey.
Read an Excerpt
Selected Reporting Pieces
By Ian Frazier
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2016 Ian Frazier
All rights reserved.
By the Road
It was the winter that Bernhard Goetz shot the four guys on the subway. The "subway vigilante," as news stories called him, had just surrendered to police, and everybody had an opinion about what he did and whether he was wrong or right. I was living in northwest Montana, in a house on the side of the Swan Mountains, as far up as you could go before national-forest land. Past the Swan range, behind the house, began the Bob Marshall Wilderness, one of the largest national-wilderness areas in the lower forty-eight states. At the foot of the mountains was the valley of the Flathead River. From clear across the valley you could see the light above our garage door.
When I moved to Montana from New York, I'd thought I was going back to some earlier and better version of America, to an Ansel Adams photograph suspended in time. Of course, Montana isn't like that, nor (as far as I know) is anywhere else. Nowadays, the particular nuttiness of the age surges everywhere instantly, like a magnetic field. Sometimes half the drop-offs at local U-Haul rental places come from California, and whenever upheaval happens there — an earthquake, a riot — the number of refugees seems to go up. A lot of people in Montana aren't so much living there as they are not living somewhere else.
That winter, the Bernhard Goetz winter, it really snowed. A hard snowfall makes you feel excited and cozy for only about ninety minutes, I found; after that, it becomes irritating, then worrisome, then alarming, and so on, sometimes all the way to panic. Writing, with its limitations at expressing tedium, can't accurately convey the feeling of watching a steady, hard, unpicturesque, windless snowfall come down for days at a time. Snow piled high on our front deck and on our roof. Sometimes the roof's snow mass, warmed underneath by the heat it was insulating, would slide down until it met the snow heap on the deck and then freeze there, shutting off the front of the house like a security gate. The driveway to that house was two hundred yards long and included a switchback. I kept it shoveled through the first several snowfalls, but then gave up. Getting it plowed cost more than I could afford, so my wife and I began parking our cars at a wide part of the road about a quarter mile downhill. One of our neighbors, a man named (let's say) Len Dodd, parked his car there, too. Len Dodd had moved here from Southern California, where he had been a policeman. He had been inspired to move by various long-cultivated dislikes and resentments, combined with a general expectation of coming apocalypse. He talked about these topics in a manner that managed to be tight-lipped and loquacious at the same time. He was short and stocky, with a bristly mustache and narrow eyes, and he often wore a billed cap of a wild, vivid paisley pattern that suggested the scrambled contortions of the thoughts inside.
Len Dodd thought that the subway vigilante was great. He talked about him often, said that Goetz had taught the punks of the world a lesson, hoped that now more people would start carrying concealed weapons on the subway, etc. I was still young enough and game enough to argue. One afternoon, we were standing by our cars for a moment before setting out on the long trudge to our houses, and Len Dodd said that Goetz had to shoot the guys, because they were threatening him and they were armed. I said that they weren't "armed"; they had screwdrivers. He said that those weren't ordinary screwdrivers, they were sharpened screwdrivers. I said — I had just read an article discussing the subject — that the screwdrivers weren't sharpened. Len Dodd gave me a narrow, in-the-know look, lowered his voice, and said, "That's not what I heard."
I looked down the road and up it. Repeated plowings had left the snow berms so high that the tire-packed track in between was like a bobsled run with white walls taller than a person. Snow had fallen the night before, reburdening the trees all the way to the crest of the Swans, whose topmost spruces and pines stood minutely whitened against the sky like fine-edged crystals of frost on a windowpane. The muffling of new snow added an extra hush to the woods' usual silence, and the painfully cold air carried no smell but that of the gigantic blankness of the Bob Marshall Wilderness beyond. Not even a deer had ventured up here for months. Len Dodd's gaze became more intense, as if to convey a hidden truth to me by mental telepathy. "Where did you hear that, Len?" I asked.
December 22, 2003CHAPTER 2
The Church of the Holy Apostles, at the corner of Twenty-eighth Street and Ninth Avenue in Manhattan, is a church only two-sevenths of the time. The other five-sevenths — every weekday including holidays, no exception made for weather, fire, or terrorist attack — it is the largest soup kitchen in New York City. It serves an average of about twelve hundred meals a day, though the number often spikes higher; on a recent Columbus Day, the number of meals served was 1492. As a church, Holy Apostles is a not large and not wealthy parish in the Episcopal Church's Diocese of New York. As a soup kitchen, it has lasted for more than twenty-five years, since back in the first Reagan administration, and has served more than six million meals.
I know about the soup kitchen because I am one of the teachers of a writers' workshop that meets there after lunch on Wednesdays in the spring. I started the workshop fourteen years ago, with the help of a grant. I wanted to do something with the soup kitchen because I admired the people there and the way it is run and the whole idea of it. There are so many hungers out there; the soup kitchen deals, efficiently and satisfyingly, with the most basic kind. I consider it, in its own fashion, a work of art.
To walk into the church while lunch is going on is to enter one of the city's defining public spaces. The building, which turned 160 this year, was declared a New York City Landmark in 1966. It has a high, arched cathedral ceiling supported by cylindrical pillars that rise to Tuscan-style groined arches. Natural light comes into the nave through tall and narrow stained-glass windows whose age and artistry make them rarities in themselves. But as for traditional church fanciness, that's about it. Most strikingly, the church has no pews. From the baptismal font, at the back of the church, to the steps of the altar, ninety feet away, no pews or carpet or other fixtures interrupt an open expanse of stone tiles, whose foot-polished smoothness suggests a dance studio or the floor of Grand Central.
People who work for the soup kitchen set up round dining tables and metal folding chairs in the main part of the church every lunchtime. The soup-kitchen guests wait in line on the sidewalk outside, receive meal tickets, file through the serving stations in the Mission House adjoining the church, fill their trays, come into the church, sit down, and eat. The meal, which lasts from ten thirty to twelve thirty, takes place in a murmur of dining noises sometimes accompanied by music on the church's piano or organ beneath (if the day is sunny) shafts of stained-glass light. Most guests finish eating in twenty minutes or half an hour and are on their way. Formerly, when the church was not used for dining, you ate in a smaller room in the Mission House and had to be finished in seven and a half minutes. Now you can take your time.
To let all the soup-kitchen guests know that our writers' workshop exists, I sometimes sit during lunch with a hand-lettered sign and a stack of flyers at a little table right by the exit door. Often, I have to clip a pen to the flyers and tape the sign to the table so they won't blow away in the cold drafts from the door. For the two hours I'm there, the stream of people does not stop. Preceding me in the exit line might be tables for representatives of housing advocacy groups, drug- and alcohol-counseling services, domestic-abuse shelters, or (a few years back) Charles, the Condom Man, who passed out free condoms for AIDS prevention with a carny barker's spiel. Because I'm nearest the door, many people wait a moment at my table before heading out into the cold, where some of them will be continuously until they return for lunch the following day.
Some ask about the workshop; most do not. They set their paper cups of hot coffee or tea next to the flyers, along with the orange or the piece of bread they were given on the way out, and they button up, pull their caps over their ears, put on gloves if they have them, retie the bags or parcels they brought, and kind of hunch down into themselves, getting ready for the city again.
On really chilly days, they might spend a long time on these details before they go. And then sometimes, after half an hour or so, the same person is again at my table, again buttoning up for outdoors. That means the person waited in line, filled his tray, ate, and then went through the process over again. There's no rule against going back for seconds; the soup kitchen never turns anybody away. On occasion, I've noticed people who have passed by three or even four times — have eaten that many lunches, in other words. The soup kitchen portions are generous, and the menu for each lunch has been designed to provide a person with enough calories to last twenty-four hours. Most people who eat at the soup kitchen look like anybody. If you sat across from them on the subway, you would never guess how hungry they were.
But there are a lot of hungry people in New York City. Talking about hunger and being hungry are two different things; talk can wait for a convenient moment, but when you're hungry, you're hungry right now. Many people on the streets of New York are hungry right now. Every year, the city has been getting hungrier. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger estimates that 1.3 million New Yorkers can't afford to buy enough food for themselves and their families all the time. That works out to about one person of every six in the city.
* * *
Once when I was sitting at my table by the door, a tall, thin, long-faced black man with deep-set eyes made deeper looking by the hood of his dark sweatshirt stopped at my table. As he was adjusting his clothing for outside, he looked at my sign. "Writers' work-shop!" he said, in a tone indicating that he was not impressed by the idea.
"Yes, we meet every Wednesday at twelve thirty in the narthex, that little room in the front of the church. Would you like to join?" I asked.
"Uh-uh, no," he said. "I ain't doin' no writers' workshop. I done that shit before."
"Really? You were in a writers' workshop before?"
"Hell yes, I was. And my teacher was a better writer than you."
"Oh? What writer was that?"
Apparently, the guy had been in a workshop that Cheever taught at the prison in Ossining, back in the seventies. I had met Cheever once, and the guy and I talked about him for a while. I asked the guy what he had learned from the workshop with Cheever, and he said, "Cheever, you understan', he was a brilliant writer. When he wrote something, he always had two things going on at a time. He told us, when you writin', you got this surface thing, you understan', goin' on up here" — he moved his left hand in a circle with his fingers spread apart, as if rubbing a flat surface — "an' then once you get that goin' on, now you got to come under it" — he brought his right hand under his left, as if throwing an uppercut — "come under this thing here that's goin' on up here, you understan'. That was how John Cheever said you write.
"John Cheever had that writers' workshop at Ossining," he continued, "and later he wrote a book about the prison, Falconer, and it was a number one bestseller. I ain't in that book. He got a bestseller from the workshop, and I didn't get shit. I ain't doin' writers' workshops no more."
Most of the people I met were less skeptical. When they saw my sign, they stopped to talk, their lunch having put them in a narrative mood. Almost everybody who talked to me said they had some amazing stories to tell if they could only write them down. Many said that if their lives were made into books, the books would be bestsellers. Some few had written books about their lives already, and they produced the manuscripts from among their belongings to show me. If you take any twelve hundred New Yorkers, naturally you'll find a certain number of good musicians, skilled carpenters, gifted athletes, and so on; you'll also come up with a small percentage who can really write. Lots of people I talked to said they were interested in the workshop; a much smaller number actually showed up. Some attended only one session, some came back year after year. In all, over fourteen years, maybe four hundred soup-kitchen guests have participated.
When I think of them, who stands out? There was Sundance, a hobo, who wrote about etiquette in hobo camps and told me where to go in the Newark train yards if I wanted to hop long-distance freight trains; and David, a bicycle messenger, who wrote a fast-paced poem about his job, titled "In Flight"; and a guy whose name I've forgotten who tried to sell stolen watches in class; and Wendy-Anne, who always wore a white bonnet and who was trying to regain ownership, she said, of her ancestral property in France; and Jay, a soup-kitchen volunteer, who wrote interestingly about the history of this neighborhood, Chelsea, and about a dollar store accessible to wheelchairs; and Roger, a former MTA employee, who came to a class, slept for a while with his head on the table, then sat bolt upright and shouted, "I need some guidance!"; and Ted, who had been a merchant seaman and wrote about being in a bar fight while the song "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail" played on the jukebox; and Donald, a regular in the early years, who penned a book-length memoir about being homeless entirely in blue ballpoint using large block capitals, because of his poor eyesight, and who had an article about the workfare program published on the op-ed page of the Times; and Charles, a bearded, wild-haired fellow, who said he preferred sleeping outside and resented being picked up in the protective sweeps the cops conducted on cold nights, and who, when I asked where he was sleeping now, replied, "the Italian embassy."
And William, who wrote about an intergalactic battle among God, various superheroes, and the Alcoholics Anonymous Higher Power; and Tory, whose hilarious piece about her brief stint as a contest-winning backup dancer for Lionel Richie and the Commodores always brought down the house at our public readings; and Carol, who wore a different hat every day and wrote a great piece about a memorial service at St. Mark's in-the-Bowery when Allen Ginsberg died; and Ron, who after a few years in the workshop began to write his own column for a men's magazine; and John, who after many years of faithful attendance called the church in 2007 to say he couldn't come to the workshop that spring because he was in Antarctica; and Joe, whose stories about his heart attack encapsulated fear in the night; and Norm, a dedicated poet, who wrote a poem titled "On Achieving Section 8 Housing"; and Jeff, who disappeared one year and returned the next saying that he had been traveling internationally as a player on a homeless men's soccer team (a claim that turned out to be true); and Nelson, who wrote tantalizingly short pieces and then came back, years later, all smiles, having found a job and his own apartment, and brought a camera and took photographs of everybody.
Listing all the writers I remember would take pages. We welcome everybody who wants to attend, with a very few exceptions. Once, I was sitting at the table by the exit with Bob Blaisdell, a teacher and writer who has taught in the workshop since the beginning, when a nattily dressed man with a West Indian accent approached us and asked if we would like him to come to the workshop and write about the nine people he had killed in Jamaica. The man posed the question with a big smile, made more striking by his gold inlays, which had been set in a line rising diagonally across his upper front teeth. I admired Bob for replying that, no, we did not want him to come and write about the nine people he had killed in Jamaica.
Every class, we met in the narthex at twelve thirty, passed out pens and notebooks, and gave optional topics for that session's writing. Proven topics have been "How I Came to New York," "If I Hadn't Seen It, I Wouldn't Have Believed It," "Shoes," "The Other Me," and "My Best Mistake." A few topics we've had to retire because they're too fraught; "My First Love," for example, was producing too many wrenching tales of first encounters with drugs and alcohol. In each session, people would write for about forty-five minutes. Then we would read the pieces out loud. All the writers were usually kind in listening to and criticizing one another; the common decorum of group-therapy sessions seemed to apply here, and, besides, we were in a church.
Excerpted from Hogs Wild by Ian Frazier. Copyright © 2016 Ian Frazier. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
1. By the Road 3
2. Hungry Minds 6
3. The One That Got Away 29
4. Word 52
5. Desert Hideaway 55
6. Dearly Disconnected 64
7. Bus Ride 71
8. Back to the Harbor 74
9. A Lonesome Death Remembered 91
10. Form and Fungus 102
11. The Unsettling Legacy of General Shrapnel 124
12. Hogs Wild 130
13. On Impact 161
14. Any Drop to Drink 183
15. Fish Out of Water 186
16. Passengers 207
17. The Rap 210
18. The March of the Strandbeests 238
19. The Toll: Sandy and the Future 253
20. Hidden City 272
21. The Antidote 302
22. The Cabaret Beat 327
23. Blue Bloods 350
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Frazier is a fabulous writer. I have been reading his reporting and humor pieces in the New Yorker and other magazines for over 25 years and never ceased to be impressed by his sheer brilliance. This book covers an amazing variety of subjects, from Hurricane Sandy to drug abuse on Staten Island to guys who are growing a mushroom replacement for styrofoam to the history of shrapnel to, well, you name it. Every single piece in this book is worth reading and, better yet, thinking about long after you've read it. It's amazing to think that this is the same guy that has written some of the most hilarious humor pieces ever. Frazier's amazing sense of humor does come through in many of the stories in this book, but the depth of his research and his ability to uncover so many fascinating details about each of his subjects makes this a book worth treasuring. I couldn't be more grateful to know that writing like this is still being done.