Book Review

Reading the Human Comedy of John McPhee, Princeton's Uncommon Carrier

Stuart Mitchner

If you read the New Yorker, you may already have sampled John McPhee's new book, Uncommon Carriers, published this month (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24). The only one of the seven pieces that appeared elsewhere, "The Ships of Port Revel," about a ship-handling school in "a pond at the foot of the Alps," didn't engage me nearly as much as the author's adventures in a chemical tanker, coal train, canoe, towboat/barge, and the transport cosmos of UPS. The only real problem I have with "Port Revel" is that it's in France. Because what sets this book apart is the picture it paints of a post-September 11 America still going strong, on the road, on the rails, on the waterways, and in the air. McPhee is writing about the transport lifeblood of America, and as I mentioned in a previous review, he "makes you feel good about the country again" regardless of 9/11, a benighted adminstration, and a war in Iraq. The only hints of the less than positive state of the nation come when a truck driver observes of the president, "George is a lost soul," and when a bald eagle, the "icon American bird" encountered in "Five Days on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," is described as looking "lazy, fat, accomplished, interested mainly in its investments."

A recent review of Uncommon Carriers in the New York Observer ("Riding Shotgun With John McPhee") claims that the author is merely "appealing to his primary audience — Upper East Side New Yorker readers — while distancing a wider readership." The reviewer also takes him to task for building "no bridges" between the previously published chapters, and for establishing "no unifying theme & except transport."

Would you trust a reviewer who scolds a writer in those terms? To use a classroom crutch like "unifying theme" in a pejorative sense suggests a study-question mentality. As Mark Twain might put it, "Anyone asking about a unifying theme in this book should be prosecuted, banished, or shot."

Anyway, what more effective unifier could you ask for than transport? And who needs to establish a unifying theme when we're living in one? The forms of transport McPhee celebrates run between blue states and red states, south to north, east to west. UPS just rang my bell with another package for my wife from the Peruvian Connection, which is located in Kansas; and here comes a new lamp from Portland, Oregon. United Parcel is a "unifying theme" all by itself. In his journey through the world of UPS McPhee writes with the sort of detail-driven descriptive energy the great novelist whose "unifying theme" was the human comedy brought to every field of endeavor he set his relentless sights on. You can learn everything you need to know about the working of a provincial printing plant in early 19th-century France in the opening chapters of Balzac's Lost Illusions, and you can learn everything you need to know about the elaborate inner-and-outerworkings of UPS in McPhee's "Out in the Sort."

This New Yorker reader, who lives 50 miles from the Upper East Side in the Upper Northwest Side of Princeton, first heard the music running through Uncommon Carriers in a two-room schoolhouse where a 4th grade geography class permanently infected him with a lifelong weakness for American place names. I could fill this entire review with the names McPhee enjoys reeling off in the course of telling what it's like to drive 18-wheelers, navigate rivers, and maneuver trains. This book's unifying affection for the names of the land would make that word-drunk place-name rhapsodist Thomas Wolfe proud. While I admit to being a subscriber to the blue state New Yorker, my roots are in red states like Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and one particular town McPhee mentions in passing ("the Empire State Building would come to New York from bedrock near Bloomington, Indiana"), and my susceptibility to what he's doing in this book comes out of a susceptibility to trucks and trains, highways, river boats, Thoreau, Mark Twain, and that much abused and misunderstood phenomenon, the American spirit. This un-"distanced" reader of Uncommon Carriers finds it hard to hate even the trucks that go booming and blasting by on Route 206 a mere half block from his back deck because of long-ago summer nights in Overland Park, Kansas, being rocked to sleep by the sound of cars and trucks rolling past just outside a bedroom window in a house that all but sat on U.S. Highway 69, cars and trucks he imagined must be on their way to places with names like the ones that give this book so much of its flavor.

The Poetry of Lobsters

"Out in the Sort" begins with a virtuoso exploration of the lobster's lot that actually has you thinking you know what it's like to be a lobster taking a trip with your fellow lobsters from Nova Scotia to Louisville, Kentucky. I mention lobsters as a way of trying to explain why I've read only three of John McPhee's almost-30 books. Here I am speaking of him in the same breath with the author of Lost Illusions and I haven't even read some of his most celebrated work. The most obvious reason for this oversight is that he writes about subjects in which I have very little, if any, interest. Lobsters? Please! Fish? Geology? Deltoid pumpkin seeds, archdruids, oranges, binding energy, bark canoes, "la place de la concorde suisse"? — who needs to know? When I think of how I feel about lobsters, I think of D.H. Lawrence's poem "Fish" ("They are beyond me, are fishes"). I don't even like to eat lobsters. I've never been half in love with thoughts of easeful lobsters. When I saw what the first paragraph of "Out in the Sort" was about, I thought, "Oh, lobsters. I'll skip ahead." On the other hand, offer me some lobsters served up by Balzac, and I'm ready to dive right in because I know he's capable of revealing the genius of the species in the context of the human comedy — which is what McPhee does when he uses a shipment of lobsters to shanghai us into his account of the human comedy of UPS.

The New Yorker Landscape

Having made a case for the All-American red and blue state essence of Uncommon Carriers, I think it's worth examining the neighborhood where these pieces first appeared. Speaking of neighborhoods, the Observer reviewer's claim that the book was somehow tailored for those sophisticated folks on the Upper East Side made me wonder how many of them read the magazine where I often do, that is, in a somewhat unsophisticated setting like that in which Leopold Bloom reads "an old number of Titbits" early on the morning of June 16, 1904. Wherever you may be reading it, if you thumb (or surf) through old numbers of the New Yorker, you'll see that articles and stories most often share the environment with cartoons and poems. The same is true in the October 3, 2005 issue in which McPhee's "Coal Train" began its two-part run. When I first read this piece (as the trucks roared up and down 206 just beyond our bathroom window), I was too wrapped up in what is still my favorite chapter of Uncommon Carriers to pay attention to what surrounded it on the page. Of course you can't help but be aware that other things are taking up space, but unless you're idly reading like a bored driver on a familiar route, you will keep your eyes on the road. Actually, you could compare the cartoons along the way to certain playful signs that pop up alongside a highway. On summer journeys between Indiana and Kansas in the days when it was U.S. 40 and not I-70, the only signs that caught your eye and broke the monotony (and central Illinois always seemed a study in monotony) were the funny ones like Burma Shave's spaced-out doggerel or the small red signs that began 300 miles to the east telling you how many miles you had to endure before you could feed your face at Pete's Cafe in Booneville, Missouri. (Since McPhee does for the Illinois River what he does for lobsters, by the way, it's no longer so easy for me to link Illinois with car-trip boredom.)

Going back to the "Coal Train" issue to see how the magazine reading experience might differ from the book format where only the author is in residence, I began to suspect that a certain subtle graphic strategy was being followed. The piece begins predictably enough under a two-page drawing in color of a train that, when you really look at it, turns out to be an enlarged New Yorker cartoon showing a man with a pipe sitting in a folding chair admiring the passing train as if the world were his living room. Identified as "A Reporter at Large," the author himself is, in effect, just another member of the New Yorker crew. A few pages further on, McPhee's word-train runs under an interesting piece of architecture formed by Louise Gluck's very vertical two-page poem, "Fugue," which looms in four evenly spaced symmetrical columns, two to each page. The first time through you might not make the comparison, but go back to the magazine after reading Uncommon Carriers and it's easy to imagine the poem as, say, a group of grain elevators overlooking a coal train loaded with prose.

Also, when you think how much McPhee's sense of humor contributes to the reading experience, you begin to realize how well his comic insights fit with some of the more subtle, low-key cartoons, for instance the little scene going on at the bottom of the concluding page of "Coal Train — 1" that shows a Tech Help person advising a customer ("You fix it by buying a new one"). I'm reminded of the moment during the author's canoe trip on the Merrimack when he describes walking through a "given piece of white water": "There were times, in holes, when I was up to my armpits, but that could not be called dramatic. Among armpits on this planet, mine do not imply great depth."

I'm running out of space. Like "Coal Train," this could be a two-part review. I still haven't mentioned one of my favorite passages, which occurs on board the towboat in "Tight-Assed River" when a voluptuous woman on a cabin boat the tow is passing removes the top of her two-piece bathing suit: "Setting it on her lap. she swivels 90 degrees to face the towboat square. Shoulders back, cheeks high, she holds her pose without retreat. In her ample presentation there is defiance of gravity. There is no angle of repose. She is a siren and these are her songs."

In another review I referred to the distinction Billy Collins makes between the poet and the novelist: the poet as the stranger who knocks on your door, says his piece, and disappears into the night, the novelist as the houseguest who moves in for a few weeks. If John McPhee were a houseguest, he would help with the dishes, show you why your ice-maker's not producing, and sit on the deck with you speculating about the tectonic plotline of the big rocky outcroppings in your backyard while smiling and shrugging at the sound of trucks booming by on 206 a Carl Furillo-stone's throw away. And he would know why it has to be Carl Furillo who throws the stone.

On Sunday, June 11, at 2 p.m. John McPhee will be discussing Uncommon Carriers in a joint appearance with his daughter, Martha, whose novel, L'America, has also just been published.

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