I first became aware of Ian Frazier, as a writer to keep an eye on, in the late 1980s, when, flipping through The New Yorker, I read a little two-page piece with his name under it. The piece was called “The Last Segment,” the last segment being the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I expected to be amused but instead was moved—the brief piece touched a chord. One page was devoted to the fond farewells of a bunch of TV characters who were once almost as familiar to Americans as their own families: Mary and Murray, Lou and Ted, Sue Ann and Georgette; the second page, in graceful pastiche, described the immediate crumbling of a typical American family once this stabilizing sitcom was no longer there to hold them together. With a couple of lines from a Bobbie Gentry song and a few other tags from here and there in the culture, Mr. Frazier managed to show, in only a page, how many things can go wrong in a family when there are no good TV shows to watch. I still think “The Last Segment” is the best two pages ever written about American television; it can be found in a collection of his magazine pieces called Coyote v. Acme, a book not much thicker than a leaf.
Intrigued, I went looking for Ian Frazier’s books, and, in his second, Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody (1987), found evidence of a restless spirit. On his way to Kansas, to attend a centennial of a massacre which took place in 1878—they use their history in Kansas—he gets stuck in the Omaha airport and immediately tries to walk over to the Missouri River, great waterway of the nineteenth-century West. The river is only a couple of hundred yards from the terminal, as the crow flies, but Mr. Frazier, not being a crow, had to trudge a long way before he could muddy his shoes beside the Big Muddy itself.
A little later, having made it to Kansas, he finds it not easy to adapt to the early-to-bed habits of Kansans:
One night, I watched TV in my motel room and after all the stations signed off went for a drive. There were few cars on the road and no lights on in town and no people except for a man at a gas station who was ignoring a man with no teeth who was telling about a sow and her piglets he had seen walking down the highway some distance to the west. I drove on dirt roads until I couldn’t see any lights, and then I got out of the car. The prairie just kept on going and going in the night, under the faraway, random stars. I felt like a drop of water on a hot plate. I did not get so far from the car, with its engine running and its headlights on, that I could not hear the radio through the …