September 2007

Weston Cutter


The Pleasure of the Full Story: The Work of John McPhee

The people, in their throngs, are the most varied we see -- or that anyone is likely to see in one place west of Suez. This intersection is the hub if not the heart of Brooklyn, where numerous streets converge, where Fourth Avenue comes plowing into the Flatbush-Atlantic plane. It is also a nexus of the race. "Weigh these, please." "Will you please weigh these?" Greeks. Italians. Russians. Finns. Haitians. Puerto Ricans. Nubians. Muslim women in veils of shocking pink. Sunnis in total black. Women in hiking shorts, with babies in their backpacks. Young Connecticut-looking pants-suit women. Their hair hangs long and as soft as cornsilk. There are country Jamaicans, in loose dresses, bandanas tight around their heads. "Fifty cents? Yes, dahling. Come on a sweetheart, mon." There are Jews by the minyan, Jews of all persuasions -- white-bearded, black-bearded, split-bearded Jews. Down off Park Slope and Cobble Hill come the neo-bohemians, out of the money and into the arts. "Will you weigh this tomato, please?" And meantime let us discuss theatre, books, environmental impacts. Maybe half the crowd are men -- men in cool Haspel cords and regimental ties, men in lipstick, men with blue eyelids. Corporate-echelon pinstripe men. Their silvered hair is perfect in coif; it appears to have been audited. Easygoing old neighborhood men with their shirts hanging open in the summer heat are walking galleries of abdominal and thoracic scars -- Brooklyn Jewish Hospital's bastings and tackings. (They do good work there.) A huge clock is on a tower high above us, and as dusk comes down in the autumn months the hands glow Chinese red. The stations of the hours light up like stars. The clock is on the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building, a skyscraper full of dentists. They go down at five into the Long Island Rail Road, under us. Below us, too, are all the subways of the city, in ganglion assembled.

Take some time with the above passage and try to appreciate all the different things it’s not only doing, but doing close to perfectly. Its compression is near hallucinogenic, hypnotic, cramming most of the essentials of a huge swath of the varied life at a Brooklyn intersection into a single paragraph. The omnivorousness, too, is a near holy terror, as if the eye that’s gauging and recording all of this is less like some mortal’s eye and more like something poking out from the densest pages of the Britannica. I think the best feature of this author’s work, in this sample and in everything else he’s written, is his humor, and this paragraph’s exemplary of the astute, dry, perfectly timed nature of the beast: Women in hiking shorts, with babies in their backpacks. Their silvered hair is perfect in coif; it appears to have been audited.

The author, of course, is John McPhee, and there’s likely no need for introductions. If you think you don't know his work, it's likely that, in fact, you do: if you’ve had a subscription to the New Yorker for more than two years, at any time in the last 41 years, you’ve had his writing at hand. He’s won a Pulitzer Prize and has twice had work nominated for the National Book Award. He’s taught some of the best editors and writers currently working, and has always taught at Princeton, the same school from which he graduated, the same school his father worked for, in the same town in which he grew up. That, believe it or not, is almost the extent of the biographical information available about the man. Search Google and there are a few more details, salient or not, I suppose, depending on what you like to know about authors.

And I totally admit that John McPhee’s work needs about as much attention -- in the form of an essay written exclusively in praise -- as you’d expect any Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker staffer’s work: Little, if any. That said, he certainly deserves more readers and more attention and more accolades, seeing how there’s a strong likelihood that John McPhee might be the best living writer in the United States.

John McPhee has published thirty books since 1965, which averages out to just less than seventeen months per book. Most genre-fiction writers don’t publish that often. All of his books are nonfiction, and in the most general way they tend toward the natural world. McPhee’s written about bark canoes, about mining for copper in the Cascades and dams in the Grand Canyon. He wrote what I have to assume is the definitive layperson’s guide toward understanding the geology of the United States, Annals of the Former World, the Pulitzer Prize winner from 1999. And yet McPhee’s written strange and fascinating books that’ve fallen far afield from, really, any other books written, by anyone. There’s Levels of the Game, a sort of dual profile of Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner through a single game of tennis, a book that’s as interesting and cool to read as it is hard to describe or imagine until you’ve experienced. There’s La Place de la Concorde Suisse, which is a book about Switzerland, its neutrality, and its army of 650,000 (there to enforce that neutrality, obviously). There’s Coming Into the Country, the Alaska book, a book it’s impossible to try to describe with much more specificity than that (a sprawling and large and inimitable book about a state featuring identical characteristics). For god’s sake, there’s Giving Good Weight, the title essay of which I quoted from there, at the top. The title essay’s about the Brooklyn Greenmarket. In that same book there’s a short piece about two pinball playing rivals, both of whom happen to be writers as well, plus there’s a longer piece about one of the most interesting chefs I’ve ever read about. The point of all this being: there’s no real way to categorize John McPhee’s topics. That’s either a good or bad thing, again, depending on how clearly you like your lines drawn.

Yet it’s not just McPhee’s indefatigable curiosity about seemingly everything -- exotic cars, cattle branding in Nevada, lobsters and how UPS plants in the east ship them -- that makes his writing so incredible. It’s that, at a sentence level, his is among the most pure writing in the language. I hesitate to use the term pure, just because its too loaded, carries so much baggage. The sensation most akin to reading John McPhee’s sentences is experiencing incredibly clear, clean water, and for the life of me I haven’t been able to nail it down much more clearly than that. I don’t know if it matters whether it’s like drinking the water, or letting it run over your hands, but there’s a cleanliness to his prose that’s almost startling. Perhaps this: you know how there are always several routes from place to place? For our purposes, we can just focus on the fastest route -- as the crow flies -- and the longest route, the scenic route. Somehow, McPhee’s writing is the absolute best of both: you’d be hard pressed to find any superfluity in his work, not a single word of fat anywhere, and yet the density of experience he presents is so overwhelming that, for instance through Coming into the Country, you end up feeling like you have a pretty thorough understanding of Alaska. I’ve never been to Alaska, so I haven’t the faintest -- McPhee could be off the mark in every way -- but it seems unlikely. For the record, of the little by way of anecdote that's available regarding McPhee and his work, the only two unconfirmed trivial bits I’ve read have to do with his writing of Coming into the Country, and those two tidbits are 1) he supposedly tied himself to his chair to finish the book, and 2) he promised himself as reward that, after finishing the book, he’d never have to write another book again. I don’t know about the veracity of either of these trivial bits, but thankfully, at least in the case of the latter, McPhee ignored his own prize. Regardless, it would seem very hard not to love a writer who'll tie himself to a chair.

Since humor’s largely a matter of taste, McPhee’s humor is somewhat harder to parse and prove. Many of his funniest moments are so dry they’re chalk. Yet two of the biggest features of great comedy, in or outside of books, are timing and surprise, and of both of these McPhee is a master. From an essay titled “Firewood,” from the collection Pieces of the Frame: “Most of the Clark & Wilkins facility is unheated, and the office, a brick-walled room, twenty-by-twenty, is heated only by wood fires. The coals of hardwood ends (the bits left over when logs are trimmed to exact lengths) give off red heat from an open fireplace. Oak smoke mixes with smoke from the cigars of the boss (the semi-wild acridity of blended wood smoke and tobacco smoke is one of the greatest moments in the history of the nose).” One of the greatest moments in the history of the nose!

I first found McPhee in book form while I was frustatedly living in a place I didn’t enjoy, and his Annals of the Former World was a thick and mesmerizing enough book to distract me from the anxieties of my surroundings. About a year ago I decided to read each of his books, starting with his 1965 profile of Bill Bradley, published as A Sense of Where You Are. What’s most remarkable as you read that first book, a forty-two year old profile of a college basketball player, is that John McPhee seems to have arrived complete, ready: his debut work features the same clarity, compression and humor he’s employed consistently since. The Headmaster, a profile of Frank Boyden, the former headmaster of Deerfield Academy, is marked by the same concise, beautifully focused prose. On reading those first two books, it’s fair to wonder if McPhee had simply found two subjects which his writing would best compliment (and vice versa) -- a future Rhodes scholar basketball phenom who had such astute muscle memory that he could tell when a basketball hoop was short by half an inch; the prestigious prep school headmaster who exemplified taking an active role in his charges in every way, from having his desk not in an office but in an arterial thoroughfare to nightly meeting with his boys (Deerfield was all boys at the time). His next book? The simply titled Oranges -- a subject about which nothing, not even the unrhymable word itself, is simple.

But it’s not so much that McPhee finds subjects that are complimentary with his writing; it’s that McPhee’s writing is generous and clear and unafraid of complexity, actually invites complexity for the purpose of illustrating and clarifying it. After reading him for awhile, you’re likely to believe he could write compelling prose examining the many sides and variations about something as simple as a game of tic-tac-toe (he’s already written about the game Monopoly).

A friend and I corresponded this summer about why nonfiction’s as popular as it is right now, and her argument was that there’s a sizable percentage of the population which wants to empathize, wants to feel each others’ pain and measure their own against it. If not that, my friend argued, nonfiction’s popularity probably has plenty to do with the fact that we’re celebrity-obsessed, and we want to know every last detail of our favorite movie star’s life. I, probably naively, argued for the likelihood of some contingency who read nonfiction for the simple pleasure of finding out how things work, who read nonfiction to better understand the world around them. My friend and I, of course, continue to disagree about this, but that might simply be because she hasn’t yet read her share of John McPhee.

All this comes up, by the way, not because McPhee’s got a new book, or because he’s being awarded a prize, or because he’s had a birthday. This all comes up because the book world has, for most of this summer, been in the grips of the hoopla surrounding Harry Potter, about which we by now know everything knowable -- not only about the book and characters, but about the author, her habits, her hopes and fears, everything. I don’t at all mean to pick on Potter -- I think it’s a great series -- but I do think someone like John McPhee, both through his writing and the welcome absence of any cult-of-personality baggage surrounding him, can be a great tonic and reminder of what we come to books for in the first place: the pleasure of the full, complex, fascinating story.