Ian Frazier appears in Pittsburgh tonight as a working humorist, with his latest book, "The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days," just released in paperback. Called a novel, the book is extension of his Cursing Mommy pieces that began in the The New Yorker in 2009, written as dispatches from a mad housewife who finds release in potent rants of profanity that would humble a Marine drill sergeant.
A New Yorker staff writer since the 1970s, the Cleveland-born Mr. Frazier is one of the magazine's great practitioners of the "casual" (appearing under the banner "Shouts & Murmurs"): the elevated humor pieces that pierce your spinal cord with delight. But unlike, say, fellow Ohioan James Thurber, Mr. Frazier also upholds the magazine's tradition of immersive, long-form journalism. Tonight, he will also speak about his latest work of nonfiction, "Travels in Siberia," published in 2010 to rave reviews for using his "dread Russia-love" to provide a detail-rich exploration of the Russian hinterland.
"The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days" would no doubt startle William Shawn, the New Yorker's editor from 1952 to 1987, who is perhaps unfairly remembered for simply being a prude. But to Mr. Frazier, the Cursing Mommy's rants are "such a mild version of modern cursing." Speaking from his home in New Jersey, he observed that these days, "lots of middle class nice people who in previous generations would not be heard swearing at all" are cussing up a blue streak in everyday conversation.
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The Cursing Mommy is the mother of two boys, 12-year-old Trevor (who's on medication to reduce his habit of committing arson) and Kyle, 8, who "breaks out in hives and faints if you look at him cross-eyed." Husband Larry, who has an unspecified job with demanding rich clients and which takes him to Nigeria quite a lot, has a hobby collecting capacitors. The Cursing Mommy likes to drink, quite a bit, and gets angry about the Bush administration, an anger stoked by what she reads in her book club.
But as Mr, Frazier underlined, the Cursing Mommy doesn't aim her profanity at her children or schluby husband. "She is cursing fate," he said. "Her quarrel is with God. She's a philosopher, trying to figure out the cosmic forces that have her in the state that she is in.
"A lot of adults are just livid all of the time, even when they are getting their way," he said. "It's mortality -- that's why you're [angry]."
Mr. Frazier's interest in, and then obsession with, Russia began not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union when he travelled to Moscow with some Russian artists he met in New York. Though in his 40s at the time, he went on to learn passable Russian and make endless journeys deep into the heart of the cryptic country.
The recent U.S. friction with Vladimir Putin's Russia does not worry Mr. Frazier. Russia is fundamentally "not an American enemy," he said. "They are an enemy now in sense they are a mess, the way that a neighbor with an overgrown yard is an enemy. Russian people like America a lot."
For Mr. Putin "to be acting like a wise older brother of America is comical," he said. "Sometimes it seems that he's making things up as it goes along. ... But I'd hate to think that he is the fate of Russia."
As someone who has traveled across the vast expanses of Russian territory, Mr. Frazier sees the nation as a victim of its geography. It was "so isolated for so long, there was no natural selection to get rid of bad ideas. They get infected and it just sweeps them. ... Russia is an abused country. It grew up with the pathologies one gets as an abused child. But I like to think they are not determinative."
While Mr. Frazier has achieved a rare spot in journalism, he does not mourn for the future. "Remember when they said 30 years ago that only images would survive? Now we're drowning in a sea of words," he said. "Getting the facts straight, the who-what-when-where-how: that is a real skill that's not endangered."
John Allison: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1915 First Published October 20, 2013 8:31 PM