Giving Good Weight

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

“Buckley has a way of tracking down the secret joys of the city,” says J. Anthony Lukas, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and world-class pinball player, after squaring off against his colleague from the New York Times in an explosive pinball match at Circus Circus peepshow emporium on West Forty-second Street. This talent for discovery characterizes John McPhee. In the five essays collected here, which include “The Pinball Philosophy” featuring the Buckley-Lukas shootout, McPhee tracks down the joys hiding in the familiar and reveals them with contagious delight.

These essays are studies of actual events: truck farmers hold an open-air market; journalists play a game of pinball; the scientific community plans a nuclear power plant; eight men take a canoe trip in the Maine woods; a chef works in the kitchen of his roadside inn. Yet in reporting these events, McPhee does not limit himself to assembling an abundance of data, however interesting, and finding the instructive historical and social perspective; he uses the novelist’s techniques of dramatic action, character development, and imagery to give vitality and texture to the stories.

The dramatic shape of each essay emerges from the movement inherent in the event itself. In “Giving Good Weight,” an account of New York City’s outdoor Greenmarket, the action follows the truck farmers from city to country and back to city, alternately building to an urban frenzy and slowing to the rural calm of unending labor. “The Atlantic Generating Station,” the story of the attempt to develop the first ocean-borne nuclear generating station, gathers suspense as research efforts spread and intensify, eventually involving tens of millions of dollars and the talents of hundreds of people.

The other three essays begin with a concentrated factual narrative locating place and time and setting the tone, and then proceed to climax and denouement. “The Keel of Lake Dickey” reaches its climax when the canoeing party negotiates the St. John River’s Big Rapid, where a man has died twelve days before and where the party now encounters a capsized canoe and two men being thrashed by the river. “Brigade du Cuisine” tells of the art and philosophy of the pseudonymous chef “Otto.” “He would like to be known for what he does, but . . . his wish to be acknowledged is exceeded by his wish not to be celebrated. . . .” The action builds up slowly as Otto shops and makes preparations: “The great thing is the mise en place. . . . You get your things together.” It reaches a crescendo at the dinner hour when, in fevered activity grown reflex and coordinated from years of training, Otto whirls out coulibiac of salmon, quenelles of veal and shrimp, paella, and osso bucco behind doors that conceal him from the dimly lit dining room where guests speak in low voices.

McPhee’s character portraits highlight American virtues. Hard work, generosity, courage and ingenuity are implicitly applauded as McPhee depicts his characters doing what they do best, or most love to do, and permits the dictates of the task to reveal the strength and talent necessary for the execution. The truck farmers in “Giving Good Weight,” who labor ninety hours a week and diversify their farms to lure the college-educated young back to the family, pass the hat one market day when an elderly customer loses her money, and regularly close their eyes to the extra ears of corn in the bag when they charge for a dozen. “I sort of favor Brooklyn,” says Yash Labanowski, who hauls his produce in from the mucklands near the New York-New Jersey border. “I give them two pounds always for a pound and a half.”

The source and historical depth of these American virtues is suggested by contrapuntal references to our forebears. Alvina Frey, a truck farmer who dislikes herbicides and mechanization and wears sweaters that look soft and expensive, still farms the land that her Saxon grandmother cleared and planted and draws water from the well her grandmother dug. Helen Hamlin, wife of game warden Curly, kept a journal of their life in the 1930’s on the banks of the St. John River. As the party in “The Keel of Lake Dickey” reaches the ruins of the Hamlin’s cabin, having endured the cold and rain for days and anticipating the upcoming rapids, McPhee recalls these journal entries. “Forty degrees below zero sounds cold,” wrote Helen, who could shoot the rapids and would travel rivers in the middle of the night. “It is cold—a dry suffocating cold. The coldest I ever experienced was fifty-four below.”

Though attractive in their strength of character, the people of the stories are not sentimentalized. Reflecting on the pressures that compromise him, a prosperous truck farmer says, “Yeah, this is some business. . . . We have friends in New Jersey, and they hope we’ll...

(The entire section is 1992 words.)