John McPhee’s ‘covert memoir’ that begs the question: Will there ever be a real one?
Japan designates certain of its artists Living National Treasures. If John McPhee were Japanese, he would have been named one long ago. At 87, he’s one of ours.
A longtime fixture in the pages of The New Yorker, McPhee published his first book. “A Sense of Where You Are,” a profile of basketball star (and later US senator) Bill Bradley, in 1965. His nonfiction works showcase a prose that exemplifies, without fanfare, the elegance of precision. Among them, such books as “The Pine Barrens,” “The Survival of the Bark Canoe,” “Coming into the Country,” his four volumes on the geology of the American West, and a writing primer, “Draft No. 4,” published just last year, have enticed readers into topics they often did not realize they cared about.
His latest, “The Patch,” is a miscellany of pieces that have not previously appeared in books. The first section largely pays attention to sports — fly fishing, football, golf, lacrosse, and black bears (the latter, mostly on how to avoid them in suburban New Jersey, where McPhee lives). The rest of the book consists of brief vignettes that he collectively christens a literary “album quilt.”
No matter the subject, these pieces embody a surface ease and grace accomplished only through relentless polishing. Draft No. 4, indeed.
My favorites among the sports essays are two that bring the author himself into clearer focus. The title piece at first seems to be about fishing on Lake Winnipesaukee for chain pickerel, a species with “teeth like concertina wire” often discarded as trash fish. But soon it’s clear that it’s more about McPhee’s father, who was team doctor for the Princeton football team and who taught him to fish.
While in New Hampshire, he’s informed that the elder McPhee has had a stroke and lies in a hospital in Baltimore. The scene shifts there, where a clueless young physician tells McPhee that his father cannot comprehend anything he will say. But as the son relates his story of pursuing a pickerel (in a part of the lake dubbed The Patch), the father’s face becomes damp with tears. This is vintage McPhee, unsentimentally told, but cutting to the bone.
I wish there were more such anecdotes, telling glimpses into the writer behind the books. “Phi Beta Football” reveals a young John wearing Princeton’s orange-and-brown tiger stripes while hanging around the big guys. When he was about 10, he stood behind the goal posts and hauled in footballs kicked for extra points. During one game the weather was so cold and rainy that he decided to become a writer after noticing that the press-box-cocooned sportswriters always kept warm and dry.
The “quilt’’ is made up of brief excerpted pieces from The New Yorker and Time, his first employer, and display McPhee’s boundless curiosity and ability to unwind complicated subjects. They also expose one of the book’s weaknesses — that many of those he profiles are dead. Cary Grant, Oscar Hammerstein, Sophia Loren, Richard Burton, Peter Sellers are included. The likes of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Nicole Kidman are not.
A vignette on the 1970s invasion of The New York Times newsroom by the computer testifies to the distance between the era when McPhee took to the typewriter and now. Just as a techie has to explain to Times reporter Israel Shenker about “scrolling” and the “cursor,” the author must explain it all to readers. In the end, a skeptical Shenker casts doubt on this new-fangled machine: “You can write on it, but you can’t think on it.”
What nonetheless keeps us reading is McPhee’s gift for the delicious turn of phrase. Burton’s boyhood home in Wales: “Poverty has seldom had a more graceful setting.” Mort Sahl’s comedic magic: “He does not tell jokes one by one, but carefully builds deceptively miscellaneous structures of jokes that are like verbal mobiles . . . until the whole structure is spinning but is nonetheless in balance.”
In the potpourri that follows, you will encounter LA earthquakes, Washington’s power elite at the Burning Tree Golf Club, Hershey’s chocolate factory, the gold stowed underground beneath the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, tennis hackers (including the author), a gathering of high-IQs at a Mensa conference, and more.
You will also appreciate the McPhee wit. Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular is dubbed “spectacorn.” At an International Flavors & Fragrances lab in New York, he discovers the chemistry-enabled “flavor plagiarism” that permits your bathroom to smell like balsam fir, no matter what’s gone on in there.
The publisher calls this book “a covert memoir,” on the book flap, but it’s merely a tease. Is there any hope for the real thing?
By John McPhee
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 242 pp., $26