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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

Welcome to His Upside-Down World : COYOTE V. ACME by Ian Frazier; Farrar, Straus & Giroux $17, 121 pages

June 28, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"When we as a society attain really good stand-up," writes Ian Frazier, imagining the kind of pronouncement comrade Stalin would have about comedy, "every evening will be open mike and the state as we know it will wither away. . . . Jokes, we will require new ones appropriate to our modern times, and on modern themes . . . on airplane food, for example. . . . Or how about the vapid and syphilitic listings of television programs published in the newspapers?"

Vapid and syphilitic listings are Frazier's specialty, and while his free-lance credentials hover unassailably over the magazine world (the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, etc., etc.) one suspects Frazier of underwriting (as in being creatively responsible for the low underbelly of American humor) on publications more like Mad magazine and probably some down-and-dirty mud-wrestling publications in Great Britain.

Like the best funny people, there's something terribly wrong with Frazier, but I'm not sure what it is. I know his friends call him Sandy, and he lives in Missoula, Mont. That's two things. As with early Picassos, we are reassured by Frazier's more serious writings (most recently the memoir, "Family," Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994). We know he can do it straight and that he is a lyrical writer, a devious and detailed reporter of modern life. So he's not just a language-perverting, fringe-dwelling point of view into nowhere. Phew.

But what about this: You are reading these essays, all of which make fun of some common form of writing (and I don't mean villanelles), bank account statements, legal briefs, the modern short story and insurance applications, even classic Boswell. Reading his essay "Boswell's Life of Don Johnson," for example, slipping into the mode you slip into reading traditional biography, you are jolted awake by the realization that the subject is Don and not Samuel.

You decide to share one such funny moment with your fellow cave dwellers. You read aloud a passage from "Coyote v. Acme," in which Mr. Wile E. Coyote ("a resident of Arizona and contiguous states") sues the Acme company ("Herein after 'defendant' ") for product liability (faulty rocket sleds, rocket skates and self-guided aerial bombs). The minute you start to read out loud, all the humor drifts out of the essay. It's as though Frazier has lured you into his upside-down universe on the written page and never again will you be able to take daily life seriously.

On some level, this offends the other adults in your immediate family. Your husband tolerates your spluttering for a few moments and then says politely, "That's nice that you find that so funny, dear." Your 4-year-old, on the other hand, who understands about three-quarters of the words and none of the cultural references, is beside himself on the floor. This, I suspect, would be the highest compliment to Mr. Frazier.

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