Kirkus Star


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A collection of eight leisurely essays, all originally published in The New Yorker. The locales range from Alaska to Maine to rural Pennsylvania, but the topic is usually the interplay between the wilderness and civilization--between the creatures of nature and the devices of technology. Whether McPhee is flying the remote Maine Allagash with his doppelganger (an airborne game warden also named John McPhee) or accompanying a scientist who uses sophisticated tracking devices to rescue abandoned bear cubs, he is considering the interaction of man and beast, technology and the environment. The author is a connoisseur of the little-known fact: we learn that gold-miners in Alaska today prefer astroturf to the traditional sieves for panning, and that bears are common in suburban New Jersey (one Jersey bear had to be rescued when she decided to hibernate in a culvert under the Turnpike!). When the message is preconceived, as in the weakest essay here (on young rural doctors and their laudable but utterly predictable reasons for choosing family practice over specialization), the delights of discovery are fewer. These essays lope along at their own pace; it can take pages for McPhee to establish his theme. The best here is a meandering but continuously brilliant piece about Circle, Alaska's Richard (""Hutch"") Hutchinson, a self-taught entrepreneur who rescued a Fairbanks PABX from the trash heap and tinkered with it at home, finally providing his tiny settlement with its first telephone (and electrical) service since boom-town days. (Says Albert Carroll, a neighbor and an enthusiastic subscriber, ""I don't have to walk over next door and ask Anne Ginnis if she has a beer. I call her and tell her to bring it."") By turns deadpan and ardent (a tiny bear cub he is holding suddenly reminds McPhee of his third daughter in infancy), these essays are notable for their broad sympathies and lucid perceptions. Several (especially those set, like Coming into the Country, in Alaska) seem likely to become classics.

Pub Date: Oct. 7th, 1985
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux