The Washington Post, October 19, 2012
Join me in laying one last wreath on the grave of William Shawn, the dauntless editor who labored for many decades against writers as formidable as Norman Mailer,John McPhee and Pauline Kael to keep naughty words out of the New Yorker. More often than not he succeeded, but his prudishness was interred with his bones, and under the glasnost of Tina Brown and David Remnick, profanity now struts and swivels its hips across the magazine's pages.
For a measure of how far things have come, consider "The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days," a full-length comic fugue derived from Ian Frazier's New Yorker columns, whose most notable passages would never have made it off Shawn's desk—any more than they can be quoted in a family newspaper. The mommy in question travels from Happy Homemaker to Mad Housewife in the space of a sentence, and her attempts to undertake even the simplest domestic chores end in ruin and a stream of block-capital swearing that would make a rapper blush.
But cut the woman some slack. Her older son is a budding delinquent with antisocial tendencies. ("I have reminded Trevor again and again about not committing arson.") Her younger son can't get through the school day without swooning. Her useless father (actually, "useless" is not the word she uses) is making a spectacle of himself at the local assisted-living center. Her husband is a wage slave who sobs quietly before going to work and spends most of his free time in the basement, playing with capacitors. Her husband's boss is making the moves on her. One of her credit cards is maxed out. Sphagnum Health is gouging her with premium hikes. The garage is falling down. The cats are ripping up the furniture. Squirrels are in the chimney. Did we mention the sandstorm?
A woman under such stress has the right to find solace where she can: in her book club, say, or in mood-leveling pills or in copious amounts of alcohol. ("People sometimes suggest to me, gently, that I should drink a bit less, and after moments like this, I countersuggest, not as gently, that I should drink a lot more.") But when all else fails, nothing works quite so well as screaming your lungs out. After which the Cursing Mommy tends to lie in a supine position and reflect: "Oh, what a . . . horrible day this is going to be." With an additional qualifier for "horrible."
Readers of Ian Frazier's previous humor collections—including the marvelous "Coyote v. Acme"—know just how funny he can be in short infusions and what a knack he has for crackpot Americana. (The Cursing Mommy's dad, for example, performs a gymnastics routine to "Some Enchanted Evening" and gets pelted with rolls by his fellow seniors.)
But an extra burden of proof attaches to the humorist who stretches his conceit to long form. Will he gain in narrative drive and characterization what he loses in concision and compression? Will his jokes keep detonating?
Well, not this time. "Book of Days" is a sort-of novel, but it can't escape its own deadening hope-to-despair rhythm—or the handicap of being built on a single endlessly recycled joke. With each new home-improvement project our heroine takes on (cooking a casserole, cleaning the refrigerator, changing the air-conditioning filter), you may start to feel the wrong kind of foreboding because you know it will end exactly as the last one did—in a flurry of Lucille Ball slapstick and a fusillade of oaths—and you can feel the comic payoff shrinking toward zero.
Moreover, under pressure of repetition, cracks materialize in Frazier's original template. Why does the Cursing Mommy's expository tone wobble between ingenuous and worldly-wise? Is she relating events after the fact (as the journal framework suggests) or experiencing them in real time (as the rants suggest)? And a further question, arising from my own profanity-strewn household: Why isn't the cursing parent a father?
Frazier might argue that it's funnier to hear a woman swear, but surely, after the pioneering work of Sophie Tucker and Moms Mabley and Bette Midler and Roseanne Barr, the novelty of salty-tongued gals has worn off. The odd thing about Frazier's conceit—a stay-at-home mom colliding with unattainable standards of domestic perfection—is how easily it could be transported back to the Eisenhower era, when folks might actually be shocked to hear a woman drop F-bombs. All in all, it makes you wonder if the new New Yorker is as edgy as it's cracked up to be—and if Shawn is as dead as he appears to be.