'On the Rez': Ian Frazier, not at his very best

January 09, 2000|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,Special to the Sun

"On the Rez," by Ian Frazier. Farrar Straus & Giroux. 320 pages. $25.

This book should bury the notion that a talented writer can make any subject fascinating.

That was the prevailing conceit at the New Yorker under Harold Ross, William Shawn and Robert Gottlieb. Writers were routinely handed acres of white space, if not the entire magazine, to slowly unspool their wondrous tapestries.

When it worked -- John Hersey's "Hiroshima," Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" -- the results were glorious and form-breaking. When it failed -- Elizabeth Drew's endless letters from Washington, John McPhee's more indulgent sagas -- the results fell under a category an old editor once called MEGO. Short for: My Eyes Glaze Over.

Ian Frazier is a proud member of the old New Yorker school. When Tina Brown took over, promising to inject -- gasp! -- some life and a sharper editing knife, Frazier eventually bolted. Too bad. This book could have used her.

Despite Frazier's enormous talent, and despite the inclination to praise anyone who dares pay fresh attention to the mostly ignored culture known as the American Indian, "On the Rez" is, much too often, just plain dull.

Ian Frazier dull? How is this possible? The same descriptive artistry and insatiable reporting that earned him acclaim for "Great Plains" is displayed here. That's not the problem.

This is: Nothing much happens.

Frazier spent months with the Ogala Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. This is the tribe of Crazy Horse, Red Cloud and Wounded Knee, and Frazier openly admires the people and culture. He sets out to explore how their concepts of freedom, bravery and heroism apply today.

His guide is Le War Lance, an Ogala Sioux who Frazier first met on a New York City street while researching "Great Plains." Frazier's obvious affection for Le is never satisfactorily explained. Far from doing anything heroic, Le spends most of the book not working, drinking beer, telling incredible tales and repeatedly using Frazier like his personal ATM. Every other page, Frazier is reaching for his wallet. "I get a satisfaction from these transactions which would be complicated to explain," Frazier writes, which is unfortunate, because what he undoubtedly views as gestures of friendship eventually appear patronizing and paternal. One of the few times Frazier denied him money, Le became angry, which may explain how Le viewed this relationship.

For much of the book, the two men, and Le's brother, travel about. They drive miles to look for friends who aren't home. They fix old cars. They plan a hunting trip, then don't go. They buy a lot of beer.

The lack of anything approaching narrative momentum gives Frazier ample opportunity to make tangential forays into everything from the diversity of Indian tribes to a history of "Indian bars" in the Midwest. Like reading a well-written encyclopedia, much of what he uncovers is interesting, but inevitably you want to scream: Where's the story?

Three-quarters into the book, Frazier finally delivers. He presents the affirming portrait of SuAnne Big Crow, a teen-age girl who led Pine Ridge to the state basketball championship before dying in a car accident. Here, amid the poverty, alcoholism and suffering evident elsewhere, is the hero Frazier has been seeking. His mini-essay on bravery and public service is inspired. In the old days, you could pick up the New Yorker and find a book-length story. Frazier has written a book with a wonderful magazine story hidden inside.

Ken Fuson, a former staff writer for The Sun, has been a reporter for more than 20 years. He now works at the Des Moines Register.

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