IRONS IN THE FIRE
Nothing, it seems, is beyond McPhee's purview, and these seven essays (which first ran in the New Yorker) offer further evidence that in the right hands even the most prosaic of topics harbors an unsuspected richness of surprising facts and fancies. McPhee (The Ransom of Russian Art, 1994; Looking for a Ship, 1990, etc.) casts his net wide. The title essay describes his journey to Nevada to examine the process of branding cattle. Along the way, he turns up tales of high-tech cattle rustling and offers some typically shrewd glimpses of the lives of ranchers and cattle-brand inspectors. Lyrical to a deadpan fault, McPhee can describe a lowing herd as no other writer: "They sound like baritone whales. They sound like jets passing overhead without Doppler effect. They sound like an all-tuba band warming up." Elsewhere, on more familiar but no less startling ground for his readers, McPhee looks at forensic geology, relating how beer magnate Adolph Coors's killer was tracked down through careful study of the mineral grains deposited on a car's underside, and describes how an FBI geologist helped to solve the murder in Mexico--no thanks to the corrupt Mexican police--of Drug Enforcement Agency agent Enrique Salazar. Perhaps the most fascinating piece here concerns one of the most ubiquitous objects in contemporary society--tires. McPhee visits the largest tire dumps in America, interviews an assortment of surprisingly visionary entrepenuers, and emerges, as usual, with an arcane yet impressive array of statistics; for example, three billion tires sit discarded in the US, from which 178 million barrels of oil could be recovered. McPhee also profiles a blind writer who relies on a humorously idiosyncratic talking computer, describes the efforts of a mason to repair the cracks in Plymouth Rock, and in one of his more uncharacteristic essays, attends a unique auction of exotic cars in Pennsylvania. Newcomers to McPhee, welcome. For old hands, more of the unique pleasures you have come to expect.