A mix of new and old work from New Yorker staff writer McPhee (Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, 2017, etc.), assembled curiously but with his trademark eye for detail.
Fittingly for a writer obsessive about the nuance of words, the title has multiple meanings. In an essay anchoring the first section, the “patch” refers to a patch of lily pads good for fishing for chain pickerel and, less overtly, to his final efforts to bond with his dying father. The second section, “An Album Quilt,” is deliberately patchwork, collecting excerpts from articles previously unavailable in book form. Many date back to his stint at Time magazine in the 1950s and ’60s, when he produced celebrity profiles. Pieces about glitterati like Cary Grant, Richard Burton, and Sophia Loren seem peculiar coming from a writer now more associated with oranges, plate tectonics, and lacrosse, but his approach hasn’t wavered: He delivers the goods in a dry (but not humorless) deadpan, trusting in the details of his research to produce the kind of surprise and irony that lesser writers turn to verbal acrobatics to achieve. The best detail in the Loren profile comes not from the actress or her associates but from her infant wet nurse; a brief profile of Joan Baez distills her rebellious attitude into the tart two-word quote that ends it. Still, to put it in golf terms McPhee might appreciate, his long game was always much stronger than his short game. He isn’t built for “Talk of the Town”–style observational pieces about MENSA meetings or Peter Sellers’ knack for accents. He’s built for long-form pieces like “The Orange Trapper,” in which his obsession with collecting lost golf balls becomes a deep dive into the wilderness and a kind of proxy study of the American class ladder.
A sturdy collection of top-shelf McPhee, with a grab bag of curiosities for fans.