James Marcus reviews the humor collection "Coyote V. Acme" by Ian Frazier.

Published May 11, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Ian Frazier has two specialties: fat, brilliant books about American life (like "Great Plains") and thin, brilliant humor collections (like "Dating Your Mom"). His latest production fits into the second category, and confirms that he's one of the funniest writers to walk the earth since Woody Allen got serious. Allen is certainly an influence, and you can also detect a strain of Benchley-like befuddlement with a gift for recycling bits of junk language in the manner of Donald Barthelme. But Frazier is an original, and the best pieces in "Coyote v. Acme" come way out of some literary left field that nobody but the author has yet managed to explore. "Thanks for the Memory," for example, begins as a competent little parody of Bob Hope's golfing memoirs. Frazier gets Hope's mannerisms -- the name dropping, the lame jokes, the verbal slackness -- down pat. Gradually, though, he inflates these tics to some surreal bursting point: by the time the piece is over, and the narrator is recalling what it's like to "fall from a plane, hit a fir tree, bust a clavicle, and play Winged Foot with some of the top-ranking daytime stars and the guys from the Village People," Hope himself has been left far behind. In other cases, Frazier sticks closer to his initial premise, even if it's so thin as to approach invisibility (see "Stalin's Chuckle" and "The Novel's Main Character.") As usual, there's a certain inconsistency to a loose-cannon collection like this one. But anyone who can make you laugh this hard has earned his right to an occasional off-day.

By James Marcus

James Marcus is a critic, translator and novelist living in Portland, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to Salon.

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