Ten gem-quality bemusements from New Yorker veteran McPhee (Uncommon Carriers, 2007, etc.).
Here the author is at his most personal, far from the cool remove that has characterized so much of his superb, voluminous output. As usual, these journalistic pieces are not assignments. McPhee examines things he finds intriguing: canoeing, basketball, lacrosse, boats, schooling and magazine writing. The stories—most of them amplified articles from the New Yorker—showcase a writer obviously enjoying himself, whether watching his grandson mucking about in the Thames estuary, where a bilge-spewing ship resembles “a floating cadaver of ulcerated rust,” or detailing the work of “champagne riddling,” during which “a plug as soft and repulsive as phlegm” is removed from the settling bubbly. Each subject comes with plenty of entertaining material, but also plays on the surface with an appealing glee. McPhee pays a return to golf, a sport he had abandoned many years before when he “envisioned [it] as a psychological Sing Sing in which I was an inmate,” and he writes with a high degree of candor and affection about working for the New Yorker—how an article came to pass, the ins and outs of the magazine’s vaunted fact-checking department, telephone conversations with William Shawn and even times when the magazine rejected his pieces. Who’d have thought? Throughout, we feel a felicitous warmth of McPhee at work as he shares his stories.
Reading these vignettes is like finding the bean in the Twelfth Night cake—each is a surprising, rewarding delight.