Thursday, August 16, 2018

Book Review Fortnight #3: "Irons in the Fire"

Estes Park, Colorado 

   I remember writing this review of one of my heroes, John McPhee, and being daunted by the thought that he would read it. So I tried to find the right balance of fanboy praise and legitimate criticism. 
     Thank goodness I've finished the beast of a feature I've been writing for the past few days. Now all I have to do is cut a thousand words out and we'll be good to go. Which means I should have an original column back here Friday. Thank you for your patience.

     I used to puzzle as to how John McPhee wrote his books. Did he carry a tape recorder up that tree? If so, how did it catch conversation above the roar of the chain saw?
     Did he take notes in that canoe? If so, how did he paddle?
     Maybe he just remembers everything. Maybe—sacrilege!—he makes some of it up.
     Ultimately, it doesn't matter how McPhee, a staffer at the New Yorker, writes his books. The important thing is, he writes them, and here they are, amazing works of reporting and composition, on subjects from citrus fruit ("Oranges") to Alaska ("Coming Into the Country").
     In one classic piece, "The Search for Marvin Gardens," McPhee intercuts between playing a game of Monopoly and touring the decaying reality of Atlantic City itself, the model for the game. I can't imagine a writer reading the essay and not feeling a pang of inadequacy at the cleverness of the concept, the skill of McPhee's interviewing. I sure did.
     At such times, returning to the question of technique, I suspect that McPhee is God. The God metaphor has proved helpful in recent years, as McPhee veered into the dry realm of geology.
     He knows what he's doing, I would tell myself, falling back on the Mysteries Defense. It isn't for us mortals to question him. If we find certain topics difficult to digest, that's our fault.

First-rate McPhee
     But this attitude wears thin, and it was a relief that McPhee's 25th book, "Irons in the Fire," is first-rate McPhee with not so much geology.
     In the title essay, McPhee heads for Nevada cattle country to patrol with the state brand inspector. That might itself sound dry, but McPhee crafts his story into something out of Zane Grey, complete with lawmen getting the drop on bad guys as they reach for their shooting irons. ("You will die if you grab that gun," says one).
     McPhee clearly adores these people, and fills the chapter with small, precise observations. "Christopher Collis, aged 10, crewcut, removes his spurs, hands them to his mother, and runs into the pasture to assist his father."
     The other major essay, "The Gravel Page," looks at forensic geology. Yes, it contains sentences such as, "The assemblage included hypersthene, augite, hornblende, garnet, high-titanium magnetite, high-temperature quartz."
     But these literally and figuratively rocky passages are redeemed by the forensic—buried bodies and criminals on the run. McPhee swoops from Japanese World War II balloon bombs to the murder of Adolph Coors III to Mexican drug kingpins, born aloft by his awe for experts who can look at a handful of pebbles and determine where in the world they came from.
     A description of a toppled tree in his essay on the largest virgin forest on the East Coast contains the best McPhee simile in the book: " ... you find whole root structures tipped into the air and looking like radial engines." (Not as good, perhaps, as the "gin-clear water ... cold as a wine bucket" in his book "Coming Into the Country," since most readers nowadays don't know a radial engine from a radial tire.)
     Speaking of tires, the book contains a trek through used-tire disposal, touring the nation's giant tire dumps as if they were national parks. The "tires are so deep they form their own topography—their own escarpments, their own overhanging cliffs."
     Two other chapters are slighter, briefer affairs—a look at the mason repairing Plymouth Rock, and a visit to a blind writer who uses computer technology.

Occasional missteps
     And one essay completely fails. "Rinardat Manheim," I finally figured out, was written from the vantage point of an exotic car dealer (with McPhee's comments confined to brackets). Handing the narrative reins to some guy who describes three different models of car as "the ultimate exotic" must have seemed a good idea.
     The occasional misstep is the price of experimentation. Only rarely does McPhee make a choice that, though clever, stops you cold. The sentence "Waggoner was grata" was one. I eventually figured out he was playing on the phrase, persona non grata, a distraction equivalent to the author bolting into the room and slapping the book out of your hands.
     Pulling a sentence out of McPhee and complaining about it, however, is ingratitude on par with challenging God to defend athlete's foot. McPhee has written some of the best books of reporting of the past 30 years—"Oranges" and "Giving Good Weight" and too many to name.
    Whether "Irons in the Fire" serves to satisfy the unquenchable McPhee craving of us long-time faithful, or sends novices hurrying to explore his previous masterpieces, the book is, like the Earth itself, a finely wrought wonder whose possible flaws only remind us of how lucky we are to have it in the first place.

—Originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 18, 1997


  1. "challenging God to defend athlete's foot"

    Starting the morning with a phrase like that augurs well for the day.

    1. The phrase, "a distraction equivalent to the author bolting into the room and slapping the book out of your hands" isn't bad either, though I suppose it might in itself be a distraction for some less attentive readers.


    2. To me it's just a reminder of the depressingly long list of things that God has to defend. As a wise man said: "God's only excuse is that He doesn't exist."

  2. My favorite writer. I am sure many have been put off by his topics and never discovered his mastery of the written word. Like many who nod off in the first 20 minutes of an Alan Greenspan talk, and miss the genius flowing in the last 20. Like economics, geology doesn't completely absorb, even by McPhees pen, but the subject from him holds your attention like a vise. Read "Basin and Range" and a drive across Nevada takes on new meaning. Like a Cormac McCarthy novel McPhee uses more words to describe esoteric subjects than seems possible, yet no word is wasted or superfluous. If one is satisfied by formulaic novels and middling biographies, McPhee might be a welcome change. I urge all readers I encounter to pick the McPhee Reader, and if they aren't grabbed by any of these digests, James Patterson is their man. If they are entertained, I recommend the entire unabridged works.


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