Sunt lacrimae rerum mentem mortalia tangent
Forgive the Latin quotation (it’s from the Aeneid) but this book deserves the honor. Aeneas says these words while looking at pictures of the Trojan War (from which he is a refugee) on the walls of a Carthaginian temple. Translations vary, but one that I like goes: “these are the tears of things, and mortal existence touches the heart.” It’s what I want to say after reading these essays by Ian Frazier.
Topics range from the Church of the Holy Apostles at 28th St. and Ninth Ave. in Manhattan, which serves on average six thousand meals a week in its nave (there are no pews; for Sunday services they use folding chairs), to the horseshoe crab, a creature which has been on this planet for almost 500 million years—the land was bare rock back then and all animal life was in the oceans. The essays spare us no details. In the case of the church, for instance, we learn exactly where the money comes from to finance the soup kitchen—$2.7 million a year, 35% from individual donors (the most dependable), the rest from foundations, and city, state, and federal governments, whose contributions fluctuate according to fashions in charitable giving and budget cuts. In the case of the horseshoe crabs, we learn the process by which blood is extracted from their hearts to produce a compound that detects the presence of bacterial toxins. After cleaning them and strapping them to racks, researchers stick a needle into their hearts and siphon off one third of the crabs’ blood, then toss them back in hopes that they will live to be drained another day, although no one knows how many survive. Frazier relates these and other gritty particulars in a steely tone that defies us, at first, to detect what he is thinking and feeling.
The title essay brims with information about wild hogs—for instance, that they’re extremely destructive and hard to kill, that they’re spreading rapidly from state to state, and that their presence in a state is a reliable indicator that it voted Republican in the last presidential election. The best way to kill wild hogs, we learn, is with dogs. It take three kinds: one to track them down and corner them, one to keep them at bay while the hunters get there, and one to bite them on the nose and the ear to distract them and keep them from attacking the hunters, who will stab or shoot the hog when they arrive. The meat makes excellent barbecue. Because of its deadpan descriptions of violence, I disliked this essay intensely until I got to the end. I hadn’t figured out how to read Frazier yet. At the end, the author turns on everything he’s been describing—the wild hog experts, the hunters, the dog guys, and himself—with an anecdote that rises like a creature from the deep, bursting to the surface in an exposé that forces us to recognize, all at once, the horror that was always present in his story and our complicity with it. It’s a moment I will not forget.
This is the form his longer essays take. Frazier treats us to highly explicit, beautifully paced descriptions of the topic in question—in addition to those I’ve mentioned, homelessness, drug addiction, the legacy of hurricane Sandy—descriptions that have their own plotlines and keep us reading in spite of ourselves, for they are often longer and more granular than we would like. And as we read, gradually there accumulates a feeling that beneath all this straight-faced, meticulous reportage lies a truth demanding to be heard. But this truth has no name and no face. When it arrives, as it always does, by the end—and after a while you can sense it coming from a long way off—it is not something you can generalize about or state in rational terms. Rather, it is an emotional truth: what one feels when faced full-on with the actualities of nature and human existence. Having gone along with Frazier to the places he visits, talked to the people he’s talked to, taken in the reports he’s read and digested the statistics, what we are left with at the end of an essay is the tears of things, our hearts touched by mortal existence.
The things are key. Frazier has an eye for the bizarre and the excessive. But it’s not sensationalism he’s after as much as a recognition of the indwelling strangeness of our world. The blood extracted from the hearts of horseshoe crabs for medical purposes is blue. Jews are the core donors to the Holy Apostles Church. He describes the banks of Delaware Bay, which is heavily populated by horseshoe crabs, as a springtime paradise criss-crossed by ocean breezes and skeins of migrating birds, and then, he writes, “I found horseshoe-crab fragments by the thousands, among paint buckets, tires, condom wrappers, bricks, Clorox bottles, bushel baskets, six-pack yokes, Sierra Mist cans, tampon dispensers, taillight fragments, shot-gun shell casings, butter-fly-shaped Mylar balloons, and two-by-fours.”
The list leaves one speechless. But Frazier can go from the specific to the universal, too. In a description of Harold Ross, founding editor of The New Yorker, after a list of ill-assorted details—a rubbery face, a huge lower lip that cigarettes stuck to, spilling a bottle of ink on someone he’s interviewing for a job, hair that stands straight up—he segues into this: “But the comic aspects served as mere distraction. In his deeper, less visible self, Ross was like the soul in the Bible that hungers and thirsts for righteousness.” Seldom do we meet a man like Frazier, who does not shrink from seeing what there is to see on the surface, and who can see what there is to see in the depths, as well.~