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He's in pursuit of more laughter

Lamentations of the Father; Essays; Ian Frazier; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 194 pp., $22

May 14, 2008|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

Though our era is awash in comedy, literary humor has dwindled in recent years.

Comedy Central now updates our taste for political satire with every turn of the 24-hour news cycle. The current generation of stand-up artists has satiated our appetite for the transgressive by taking -- unwittingly, of course -- their art back to its origins in ancient Greece, where some classicists believe comic drama originated in folk hymns to the phallus. It's not the sort of audience likely to spend a few quiet moments, let alone hours, with Twain, Thurber, Waugh or Wodehouse.

Indeed, if there were a federal registry for endangered literary genres, humor surely would be on it, a prose equivalent of the black-footed ferret.

All of this makes Ian Frazier a kind of rara avis and his new collection of essays, "Lamentations of the Father," as welcome as another sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker. As a longtime staff writer for the New Yorker, the author has enjoyed the protection of what amounts to one of literary humor's protected habitats, and he's made the most of it. No one writing in this genre today hits the mark with anything like Frazier's frequency. The measure of his success is the number of pieces you'll want to read aloud to others -- partly to share the pleasure, partly to explain why you've been making all those strangling noises. What distinguishes literary humor from other forms of contemporary comedy is that, in most instances, you can share it with those around you, even if one of the listeners can't get into a PG-13 film on his own.

This is Frazier's third collection of humorous essays, and this one takes its title from a piece that has been ricocheting around the e-mail universe ever since it was published. In it, the author adopts the tone of Deuteronomy to explicate a set of rules familiar to any parent:

"Of the beasts of the field, and of the fishes of the sea and of all foods that are acceptable in my sight you may eat, but not in the living room. Of the hoofed animals, broiled or ground into burgers you may eat, but not in the living room."

Famous names

In "Kisses All Around," Frazier indulges a conceit familiar to anybody who works with words -- the written air kiss administered to the acquaintance who has sent you something you're too busy to read. Thus Pope Leo X's secretary assures Martin Luther that the pontiff means to get to his "Ninety-Five Theses" as soon as his schedule lightens: "It's on the table next to his bed, and he will certainly get to it soon." Felix Faure, president of the Third Republic, congratulates Emile Zola on "J'Accuse," the title of his new "war yarn." The Ayatollah Khomeini promises Salman Rushdie he'll get to "The Satanic Verses" as soon as he can and signs off, "Death to Bush or whoever, and kisses all around."

A couple of pieces -- one on crows, for instance -- fall flat, but that's to be expected. Another on Osama bin Laden obviously was written before 9/11 and should have been omitted.

Lest this emphasis on the more literary essays make Frazier seem overly fastidious, perish the thought.

Two of the funniest pieces in this collection can't be quoted in a family newspaper -- and, yes, that's still how we think of this publication -- but you sort of get the idea from their titles: "The Cursing Mommy Cookbook" and "A Cursing Mommy Christmas." Both will ring absolutely true to anybody with a life.

One of the many pleasures of Frazier's humorous sensibility is that it doesn't deny the distinction between high and low, but integrates the two as equally real and equally worthy of consideration. The title "The New Poetry," for example, could be ripped from the hand-cut pages of any one of several dozen little magazines.

New poets

In Frazier's hands, it becomes the occasion for considering a Thomas Hardy you won't quite recognize and an Ezra Pound whose pretensions you will, since he "had a Parisian jeweler make a solid-gold laurel wreath for him, which he wore about his temples when he attended award ceremonies of the French Academy." If the author's account of his "new poets" and their art seems curiously like an entertainment page piece on a stable of rap musicians, well . . . there's this on the Wystan Hugh you never knew:

"Other Auden works dispensed with narrative and argument entirely, relying instead upon incantatory rhythms reminiscent of medieval mystery plays. For example, his 'Ten Songs in Praise of Yo' Booty' used the evocative phrase 'Gettin' jiggy wit' it,' in multiple repetitions, line after line and, indeed, page after page. Only by such iteration, Auden believed, could the poet convey man's transience in the endlessness of time.

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