Dec/Jan 2019

Built to Last

John McPhee’s ways of seeing

Alex Abramovich


The Patch

by John McPhee

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

$26.00 List Price

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JOHN MCPHEE WAS BORN in Princeton, New Jersey, attended Princeton High School and Princeton University (class of 1953), and raised his four daughters in Princeton. He lives and works in Princeton to this day, practicing the craft he learned in New York—at Time magazine, where he spent seven years, and at the New Yorker, where he’s been a writer on staff since 1965. The Patch is his thirty-third book overall. It takes in the whole arc of his long career, assembling recent essays and previously uncollected pieces dating back to the ’50s, and is McPhee’s second victory lap in a row, if we include his idiosyncratic memoir-as-writer’s-manual, Draft No. 4 (2017). It is dedicated to McPhee’s grandchildren—all ten of them, if I’ve counted correctly—and it contains 6.2 pieces per child. Most are a few pages long, though the one that begins “A professional writer, by definition, is a person clothed in self-denial” is just one winding sentence, and winds its way to a surprising conclusion in no time at all. The book’s second half, where all the short pieces and all of the fragments are placed, might more properly be called a collection of outtakes—McPhee’s Odds & Sods. McPhee himself calls it “an album quilt,” and the selection is done with great care. “I looked through some dozens of things I wrote when I was in college, and threw them all out,” McPhee explains. “In aggregate, I sifted about two hundred and fifty thousand words and got rid of seventy-five percent. I didn’t aim to reprint the whole of anything. Instead, I was looking for blocks to add to the quilt, and not without new touches, internal deletions, or changed tenses—trying to make something, not just preserve it, and hoping the result would be engaging to read.”

As advertised, the results are delightful. Here are three examples:

Being Cary Grant is such a gilded role that all sorts of other people think they are Cary Grant, too. Tony Curtis, for example, seems to caricature Grant in everything he does. He dresses like Grant, but with tighter trousers; his accent seems to be an attempt to sound like Grant; and he imitates Grant on the screen. When Curtis bought a Rolls-Royce, he made sure he got a better one than Grant’s.
Grant has many apes but few friends.

Once, after fluffing the same line repeatedly on a movie set, [Richard] Burton lowered his head and rammed it into a wall. It is impossible to imagine an English actor doing that, but Burton of course is not English. He is Welsh. In fact, he is so thoroughly, defensively, and patriotically Welsh that it costs him some loss of perspective. His gallery of great Welshmen includes Louis XIV, Christopher Columbus, and Alexander the Great.

Lolita Dolores Martinez Asunsolo Lopez Negrette is now Dolores del Rio. Marion Morrison probably thought his name sounded girlish so he changed it to John Wayne. Douglas Fairbanks was really Douglas Ulman. June Allyson was Ella Geisman. Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson, of Tasmania, started her career as Queenie Thompson, outgrew that, and became Merle Oberon. Yul Brynner goes around saying that his original name was Taidje Khan Jr., and that it derives from northeast Asia, but he is probably Joseph Doaks or something close to that. No one has ever been able to pin him down about his background, not even his wives.

Meanwhile, Rip Torn, that bisyllabic symbol of absurdly phony Hollywood names, is really Rip Torn. His father was Rip Torn, too.

And this is just John McPhee clearing his throat.

Click to enlarge

Winslow Homer, The Rise, 1900, watercolor and graphite
on wove paper, 13 3⁄4 × 20 3⁄4".

At the New Yorker, McPhee went on to write, at great length, about geology and geologists; about ecology and ecologists; about nature and the effort, on the part of engineers and scientists, to control it. He’s written book-length essays about merchant ships, oranges, doctors who specialize (or, rather, don’t specialize) in family practice, experimental aircraft, and the peculiar inhabitants of the Pine Barrens, in southern New Jersey. Nineteen years ago, he won the Pulitzer Prize for a collection that contains two other books of his that were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. McPhee’s fans could be divided between those who prefer subjects that move (tennis players, or birchbark canoes) and those with the patience to read about things (like the state of Alaska) that don’t move. But unless you were reading Time at the time of the Luce administration, you’ve never read McPhee on Sophia Loren, or seen him wrestling with the constraints of celebrity profiles. He’s good at it, too, although he became better when the New Yorker’s editor, William Shawn, gave him the luxury of spending months—sometimes years—on his pieces. Shawn’s immediate successors, Robert Gottlieb and Tina Brown, were happy to publish McPhee’s work, as well, and David Remnick, who edits the magazine now, was a student of McPhee’s at Princeton. Barring death or dismemberment, he’ll always have a good home for his writing and, like the magazine’s other old-timers (Roger Angell, Calvins Trillin and Tomkins, and Janet Malcolm come to mind), he seems to be aging with no measurable diminishment of powers.

Take, for instance, “The Patch,” which is the essay that starts this collection and gives it its name. Ostensibly, it’s a piece about fishing. “You move your canoe through open water a fly cast away from a patch of lily pads,” it begins. “You cast just shy of the edge of the pads—inches off the edge of the pads.”

Chain pickerel is the fish we are after. A territorial fish, which preys on “frogs, crayfish, newts, turtles, and smaller fish, including its own young,” as well as small birds. Fishermen who fish for bass in bass boats tend to look down on the pickerel—even though, we are told, a young pickerel, when sautéed, is delicious. But then, there’s something a bit dark about McPhee’s own description of this long, ravening fish. The pickerel’s body “resembles a barracuda’s.” It tends to hover, while waiting for prey, but it can “accelerate like a bullet,” and it is stubborn and merciless. “As voracious as insurance companies, as greedy as banks,” McPhee writes. “Put a pickerel in a pond full of trout, and before long all that’s in there is a larger pickerel.” Time and again, he notes (quoting Thoreau in one instance because, happily, Thoreau also wrote about pickerel) that the pickerel is cannibalistic. “Pickerel have palatal teeth,” McPhee writes in a bravura passage:

They also have teeth on their tongues, not to mention those razor jaws. On their bodies, they sometimes bear scars from the teeth of other pickerel. Pickerel that have been found in the stomachs of pickerel have in turn contained pickerel in their stomachs. A minnow found in the stomach of a pickerel had a pickerel in its stomach that had in its stomach a minnow. Young pickerel start eating one another when they are scarcely two inches long.

That final turn is typical McPhee—you see the same fillip in the last line of the Cary Grant passage I’ve quoted above. A simple declarative sentence performs the rhetorical function a couplet provides in Shakespearean sonnets: It sticks the ending; it sums up the argument; and, in this instance, it sends us back to the Escher-like, ouroboric sentences that have preceded it.

Among other things, Ouroboros—the snake that eats its own tail—is a symbol of death and rebirth, and McPhee’s been working with the death of the pickerel, and of the things that a pickerel kills. But four pages into the essay, McPhee shifts the scene to a Baltimore hospital, which his father has been brought to. There’s a doctor in the room—a “young doctor”—and McPhee is taken aback by the physician’s candor. “He said the patient did not have many days to live, and he described cerebral events in language only the patient, among those present, was equipped to understand.” (McPhee’s father was a physician, as well, having practiced sports medicine at Princeton.)

“He can’t comprehend anything, his eyes follow nothing, he is finished,” the young doctor says.

AT AROUND THE TIME “The Patch” was first published in the New Yorker, in 2010, the Paris Review sat McPhee down for an extended interview. “I never had any interest in writing about myself, or, Lord knows, in inserting myself between the reader and the material,” he said. But the young doctor’s cruelty demands a reaction, and McPhee, who is a small, shy man and self-effacing, professionally, up to the point of complete self-erasure, allows himself one none-too-violent outburst: “Wordlessly,” he writes, “I said to him, ‘You fucking bastard.’”

The rest of the essay moves, back and forth, between the patch and the hospital room—between the filleting board and the hospital bed—until, at its close, McPhee picks up his father’s bamboo fishing rod and goes out yet again, to catch a pickerel he’s spotted thirty yards away from shore, in a gap between the lily pads. There’s a bit of a meaningful echo here (McPhee’s told us already that “pickerel grow like bamboo”) and also a bit of tension, because, at this point in the story, McPhee has caught nothing and his wife, Yolanda, is calling to him from the shore: “John we must go! John, stop fishing! John!”

McPhee stays in the patch, drifting, letting a “light breeze carry me this time, freelance, free-form,” through the water. Yolanda calls out to him two more times, then gives up. He casts his line between the lily pads: “The pickerel scored the surface in crossing it, swirled, made a solid hit, and took the tight line down, wrapping it around the stems of the plants.”

Back in the hospital, McPhee tells his father about this: “I pulled him out of there plants and all,” he says. “I caught him with your bamboo rod.”

“I looked closely at my father,” McPhee writes. “His eyes had welled over. His face was damp. Six weeks later, he was dead.”

McPhee’s pickerel isn’t a symbol: It is a fish. But so much of this story takes place under water—so much of its action is under the surface—that it reads like a mystery play, or a myth. The father’s eyes; McPhee’s writer’s eye; the pickerel’s dead eye, which McPhee does not need to describe. (Nor does he describe the young doctor’s eyes; you know, already, that they’re cold and that, in a sense, the physician is blind.) All of these eyes were still rattling around in my mind, weeks after I’d finished the essay, and I suppose they’ll stay there, like Eliot’s Phoenician sailor (“those are pearls that were his eyes”) and Elizabeth Bishop’s “tremendous fish.”

It’s a rare gift, to be able to see as well as McPhee sees, and to be given the time that it takes to describe the connections between things so clearly. (In his Paris Review interview, McPhee says that, “in high school, because my name was McPhee, I sat next to a guy named Muller, and he was blind, and we got to know each other. And as I got to know him, I took to reading to him.” Later on, he became friends with another blind man—a fishing companion in Princeton—and would read drafts of his own work, aloud, to this man.) By the same token, it’s also rare to encounter a writer who writes so artfully about himself while hardly writing about himself at all.

THERE ARE FIVE other essays in this collection’s first half—about football, lacrosse, golf, and (stretching the theme a bit) bears. One thing that’s striking about them is McPhee’s vocabulary—the delight he takes in putting words like “batture” and “luffing” and “autochthonous” in places where they stick out like a man with a monocle at a Mets game. You won’t get far with McPhee unless you’ve got a decent dictionary at the ready. But more often than not, McPhee’s just being playful—at this point, for him, it must all be just gravy—and, from time to time in these pages, you catch him loosening his tie. “(!!!)” he writes, most of the way through his essay on bears. “Fuck you, coach!” is what he says to Denver’s lacrosse coach, Bill Tierney.

This is not the sort of thing William Shawn would have stood for. But, like all things, the New Yorker’s been changing, and McPhee’s gone along for the ride. Sometimes it’s jarring, because he’s cut from the old cloth: restrained and reticent; Waspy, if not quite repressed. By and large, writers who made it far at the New Yorker never were impassioned. Or, rather, they were impassioned but trained not to show it because the New Yorker was measured and tidy and always genteel—like William Shawn (“Mr. Shawn,” internally), the place was a bit hemophobic. That’s changed already, gone the way of the typing pool and multi-part articles about mundane subjects, and in most ways that’s a good thing. But there’s something lost, too, when the churn of the news cycle bloodies clear water. In McPhee’s case, his natural reticence, and all the time he’s been given to steady his hand and his gaze, is what gives his writing mastery and force: steady warmth and steady motion, instead of fire and empty theatrics; what Hemingway called “the dignity of the movement of an iceberg,” resulting from the fact that the mass of an iceberg is mostly submerged. When it works as well as it does in “The Patch,” there’s nothing quite like it. And now, looking at it again, I can see that it’s not really death McPhee’s written about in that essay, but death and rebirth, with the rebirth in question belonging to McPhee’s father, who is alive again there on the page, and eloquent, although he is no longer able to speak, or to see or, perhaps, comprehend. Somehow, on paper, the son and the father, and all of nature, have merged, and shown themselves to have been merged all along.

“What’s a hundred years?” McPhee has asked, elsewhere. “Nothing. And everything, it doesn’t evanesce, it disappears. And time goes on, and the planet does what it’s going to do. It makes you think you’re living in your own time all right. It makes the idea of some kind of heritage seem touching, seem odd.” Perhaps. But in his own quiet, meticulous way, McPhee’s built a body of work that will stand.

Alex Abramovich is the author of Bullies: A Friendship (Henry Holt, 2016).

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