Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Uncommon Carriers

John McPhee

The second John McPhee book that I read was his 1967 opus, Oranges. I was amazed to find a writer that could make an exploration of the Florida orange growing business a can't put it down read. Nobody equaled McPhee's feat until Henry Petroski wrote The Pencil. Oh, the first one I read was The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed. I'm still waiting for semi-lighter than air ships to take over our transportation system.

Uncommon Carriers, published in 2006, is McPhee's 30th book of non-fiction. In it he describes riding with a long haul trucker who carries hazardous materials coast to coast, pushing barges up and down the Illinois River with a tow boat (McPhee was a supernumerary on board) riding a mile and a half long coal train from a mine in Wyoming to a power plant in Georgia and a tour of the UPS sorting facility in Louisville, KY.

McPhee makes his subjects interesting by concentrating on the people he meets. The truck driver in the first part of this book, Don Ainsworth, is a very interesting man and I wish that McPhee had stayed with his story longer. Ainsworth's hobby of collecting boots made of exotic leathers - even two pairs made from endangered sea turtle - his reading habits, almost as eclectic as my own, and his colorful use of language, held my interest beyond the time that McPhee wanted to devote to him. Ainsworth is a devoter reader of the Wall Street Journal, which he referred to as "the Walleye."

Like William Least Heat Moon's Roads to Quoz, this books seems to be a patchwork collection of short pieces put together by the author, piecemeal. It does have the unifying theme of transportation, yet it doesn't quite gel. The chapter on UPS is particularly jarring, and why is there a chapter about a canoe trip that followed, sort of, the route taken by Henry David Thoreau, up the Merrimack river? That doesn't belong in here at all.

I did learn something about the air freight business and about the Merrimack and eventually settled down to read those chapters with pleasure. John McPhee's simple prose captured me again. I hope that Don Ainsworth continues to find the Walleye at truck stops across America for a long time to come.


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