McPhee (The Founding Fish, 2002, etc.) rides the rails, sits shotgun in a tanker truck and climbs aboard a river towboat as he investigates the ways in which the staples of modern life travel from one place to another.
The seven chapters here, large portions of which have appeared in the New Yorker, for which the author is a staff writer, and the Atlantic Monthly, contain the trademark McPhee touches—unstinting attention to revealing details, a wry sense of humor and a way of rendering prosaic subjects fascinating. He really shines when he finds a character to match his interest in the mechanical, and truck driver Don Ainsworth, a central figure throughout two chapters, plays the perfect foil. As Ainsworth pilots his polished-chrome, 80,000-pounds-when-loaded chemical tanker truck across the country, McPhee reveals the driver’s obsession with the Wall Street Journal, his collection of boots made from the skins of exotic animals such as water buffaloes and caimans and the technical skill it takes to steer his leviathan-sized vehicle clear of inattentive drivers and overeager cops (“four-wheelers” and “bears,” in the driver’s lingo). Elsewhere, the author hitches a ride on a coal train a mile-and-a-half long, attends a school in France where tanker-ship captains practice tricky maneuvers on a pond in scale-sized model ships and rides along as a towboat pushes a thousand-foot-long line of barges up the Illinois River. McPhee portrays the main UPS sorting center in Louisville as an enormous Rube Goldberg contraption in which the workers inside, many of them college students slogging through night shifts to pay tuition, appear tiny in the shadow of the behemoth that roars all around them. In the one chapter that drags somewhat—perhaps because the central character is long-deceased—McPhee canoes the Concord and Merrimack Rivers along the route taken by Henry David Thoreau in 1839.
Read this colorful journalism and you will never view an 18-wheeler, freight train or UPS truck in quite the same way.