Dating Your Mom, 1986
Nobody Better, Better than Nobody, 1987
Great Plains, 1989
Coyote v. Acme, 1996
On the Rez, 2000
Lamentations of the Father, 2000 (illustrated by Bruce Zick)
The Fish’s Eye: Essays About Angling and the Outdoors, 2002
The Best American Essays, 1997, 1997
It Happened Like This: Stories and Poems, 1998 (of Daniil Kharms)
Ian Frazier (FRAYZH-ur) is noted for his humorous essays on contemporary life and travel narratives that explore American history and geography–especially his work about the American West. He has been a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. He has written for the Harvard Lampoon and published in Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines. He has contributed essays for many books, translated a book, written on the crafts of travel writing and journalism, and served as editor for The Best American Essays, 1997.
After graduating from Harvard University in 1973, Frazier looked for work writing for magazines. While living in Chicago, he briefly wrote for Playboy. He then found a job as a staff writer for The New Yorker, writing pieces for the magazine’s “Talk of the Town” section. In 1982, the unmarried Frazier moved to Kalispell, Montana, where he stayed for several years before returning to New York City. His time there led to his writing of Great Plains, a work which became a best-seller and brought him national attention. In 1996, having married Jacqueline Carey, another writer, Frazier again moved to Montana for several years, this time bringing his wife and two children to Missoula, while he developed and worked on his book On the Rez.
Frazier’s eclectic work as a journalist and essayist has led him to write about a variety of topics, from dating to parenting, from the sport of fishing to lampooning lawyers, and even spoofing on the lives and works of modern poets. His longer works of nonfiction–Great Plains, Family, and On the Rez–deal with his journeys across the United States and combine accounts of people he meets along the way with his own personal stories, arcane knowledge of history, and reporting about current affairs. His work is part oral biography, relying on the spoken words and memories of others, and part meticulous research of facts and documents. His longer works of nonfiction include copious notes on his research at libraries and other sources. He seems more a lively biographer of America, a chronicler of road journeys, than a historian. His sources might include a bartender as well as a book at a local museum.
Great Plains was his first large work of nonfiction. In it, Frazier recounts the history of Crazy Horse and other American Indians. He tells the story of Nicodemus, Kansas, the first town settled by black people after the Civil War. He also tells the story of how certain grasses were imported to the Great Plains as well as how the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) runs the missile silos in the Dakotas. Great Plains–part living history, part elegy–is a book that questions what the current United States has made of the ideals upon which the country was founded.
Family is a biography of Frazier’s ancestors and relatives. The book searches widely and extensively through America’s past and that of his own family. One chapter looks at how his early ancestors became settlers in Ohio, another chapter describes the tragedy of the Civil War, and still another chapter looks at the tragedy of the death of Frazier’s brother Fritz as well as the onset of his parents’ illnesses. As with Great Plains, Frazier combines personal stories with interviews, letters and memories, and factual research to explore his topic. The book also takes on issues of slavery, American ideals, and religion. Family attempts to rescue a bit of the past–his own. It values the lives of ordinary people.
In On the Rez, Frazier combines his love of the West with his interest in American Indians to write a story about his travels from New York City to Missoula, Montana, and then to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He focuses on the stories of two contemporary and contrasting American Indians: his friend Le War Lance, whom he wrote about in Great Plains, and the life and legend of SuAnne Big Crow. Frazier also examines the Battle of Wounded Knee (1890), and he confronts his own desires to have lived as an American Indian.
Frazier has also published books of humorous pieces. As with his longer works, these essays, including “Dating Your Mom” and “Coyote v. Acme,” seem drawn upon his personal experiences and stretch those experiences in comical ways to reveal something about the way ordinary Americans live.
His career has not been without controversy. Frazier stopped writing for The New Yorker after editor Tina Brown had comedian Roseanne serve as a guest editor for an issue. On the Rez has drawn criticism from American Indians and others who feel Frazier has not really understood what modern life is like for Indians. A few others have criticized the book as being too sympathetic in its treatment of American Indian Movement leaders.
While in his books he relates personal stories about himself, there are very few outside sources and interviews available about his life and career. Frazier could be compared to a wide variety of contemporary authors. His travel writings can easily go alongside those of Dayton Duncan (Out West, 1987) and William Least Heat-Moon (Blue Highways, 1982, and PrairyErth, 1991). His focus on American Indians compares to that in Peter Mathiessen’s works In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983) and Indian Country (1984). As an essayist, Frazier is similar to Evan S. Connell. His books about the West put him in the company of Jonathan Raban and historian Stephen Ambrose. His humorous essays have a witty flavor not unlike that of Steve Martin or Dave Barry. Frazier’s work has received praise from critics and peers and attracts an audience as wide and varied as his interests.