In this age of instant communication and Internet shopping, it can be easy to forget that an item that takes mere minutes to identify through an online catalog and seconds to order will still take days to arrive. As Howard Strauss of Princeton University puts it in John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers, “it’s easier to move bits than atoms.” Through this book, McPhee’s twenty-seventh if one does not count the two John McPhee Reader collections (1976, 1996), he explores the various ways freight moves from one place to another. In seven essays, he rides cross-country in a tanker truck, up the Illinois River on a towboat moving fifteen barges, and across the Great Plains on a coal train that stretches more than a mile long; he watches ship captains sharpen their technique at ship handling school, re-creates Henry David Thoreau’s journey by canoe up the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and follows a shipment of lobsters from a warehouse in Nova Scotia through “the sort” at the United Parcel Service (UPS) distribution facility. Through these essays a theme emerges: The people who move goods from place to place are skilled and knowledgeable even though they are, to most consumers, invisible.
The book begins and ends with two trips in “the world’s most beautiful truck,” the stainless steel skinned, sixty-five-foot-long tank truck owned and operated by Dan Ainsworth. McPhee, who seems to be comfortable chatting with anyone, accompanies Ainsworth as he hauls chemicals across the country. As McPhee sees the country’s interstates from the cab of Ainsworth’s truck in “A Fleet of One,” he discovers the particular concerns of the long-haul trucker: staying off the radar of the police; avoiding collisions with reckless automobile drivers; descending long, steep hills safely; obtaining fuel at the optimum prices and times; driving safely through rain, snow, and ice; and finding truck washing facilities that will not leave water spots. McPhee and Ainsworth become friends during their three-thousand-mile journey, as Ainsworth shares his ideas about the writers Joan Didion, John Steinbeck, and Larry McMurtry, waxes philosophical, tells jokes, and explains the decision making that keeps him in business. He is clearly a decent man, one the reader is glad to know. Three years after the first trip in the first essay, McPhee rides with Ainsworth again in “A Fleet of OneII,” and his pleasure at reuniting with the driver is the reader’s as well.
McPhee’s approach in these two essays reflects skills honed through forty years of work. He is not an expert in transportation. An English major in college, he teaches journalism at Princeton, he asks good questions, he notices everything, and he takes good notes. Most important, McPhee does not learn about transportation by conducting phone interviews or Internet searcheshe gets out there and sees for himself. In clear detail he explains how speed limits down a steep hill are determined by a truck’s weight; how a tanker is emptied and cleaned; and how a load is distributed over a truck’s axles. As a well-educated nonexpert, he is aware of his audience’s needs, and his precise and colorful descriptions, as well as his warmth and good humor, carry readers over the more technical material.
The most interesting piece in the collection, “In the Sort,” is in some ways the most unusual. One widely admired characteristic of McPhee’s writing is his ability to take topics as potentially inaccessibleor even dryas geology, the disposal of old tires, or the cultivation of oranges, and present them to general readers by finding humorous and articulate people willing to show him around and talk about their work. In “In the Sort,” a tour of the UPS Worldport hub, the package sorting center at the Louisville, Kentucky, International Airport, there is no central character. The essay starts off like a typical McPhee piece: Thousands of lobsters need to be transported quickly from Nova Scotia to Louisville and then on around the continent, and McPhee introduces the men who sort, refrigerate, and truck them. Once the lobsters and the writer arrive at the...
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