I did not actually plan to read Ian Frazier’s latest, “The Cursing Mommy’s Book of Days.” I was kind of saddened by its arrival, really. The book seemed beneath him.
I consider Frazier one of the most enjoyable, versatile writers alive, whether he’s writing short humor (“Coyote v. Acme”) or continent-spanning narratives (“Travels in Siberia.”)
The Cursing Mommy is one of his funniest creations. The first time I encountered her, in his 2008 anthology “Lamentations of the Father,” I laughed so hard I dropped the book on the floor and was left curled up in my chair and wiping tears from my eyes.
It’s naughty, dark, funny; the whole shtick is that the Cursing Mommy is going to attempt some type of homemaker-y craftsy thing, probably while drinking one of her favorite types of liquor, of which she has many. And then something is going to go horribly, horribly wrong. And then, the Cursing Mommy is going to curse. A lot.
It’s a good routine, good enough to have been used repeatedly in The New Yorker. But stitching a series of them together into a novel? I had visions of one of those terrible movies made from a “Saturday Night Live” skit that was funny the first three times and then got repeated until the dried corpse of the original joke was beaten into a pile of ash.
I didn’t want that to happen with the Cursing Mommy. But the book was just sitting there, so I decided to pick it up.
I ended up curled up on the sofa, wiping my eyes, choking back laughs so that I did not wake the entire household.
Yes, the book recycles some work that has appeared before. Many of the guffaws come from knowing that the Cursing Mommy is going to fail, and trying to anticipate just how big a catastrophe it’s going to be. (Echoes of Wile E. Coyote, perhaps?)
Masterfully, though, Frazier has given his cartoon character of a protagonist recognizable modern-life challenges: Troubled children. Vile insurance companies. A distant husband, working harder than ever for less pay for a creepy boss. Unlike the coyote, who deals in rocket skates and falling anvils, we can understand the challenges, big and small, in her life — and wish we could react with her righteous, profane, dish-smashing rage.
Frazier also concocts ingenious, absurdist situations that, frighteningly, don’t seem all that implausible: A supermarket that is little more than a truck terminal, where shoppers hunt for what they need in the trailers. (“The prices are low — I will say that.”) A cash-strapped elementary school where students are required to show up on Saturday for “Repoint the Bricks Day.” (“Sometimes I wish they had never repealed the school levy but that was the voters’ decision.”) A therapist who helps the Cursing Mommy sedate her son into submission with drugs such as Simulose and Ridiculin. (“These are lobotomy derivatives of the nightshade family, if I’m remembering that right. They are more effective than Eutopophane alone and they give Trevor a very level mood. In combination they can cause you to grow a second row of teeth, and we will have to watch for that. Trevor was a terrible biter when he was small.”)
This book is not for mommies who have it all together, or would like the world to think they do. Nor is it, obviously, for anyone who disapproves of a great quantity of four- and seven-letter words.
But for any real-world mommies (or daddies) who have been left bewildered by their lives and been tempted to let a few choice words fly at any aspect of it — I recommend putting on a video for the kids, pouring a favorite beverage and picking up this book. I am glad I did.