Irons in the Fire

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

At first glance, this book appears to be a gathering of heterogeneous essays related only by their having come by some quirk from the same hand and all appearing first in THE NEW YORKER. However, as one reads through them their unity emerges, signaled by the title. The essays in John McPhee’s IRONS IN THE FIRE all concern mankind as toolmaker and user, his tools diverse and their uses not always benign. As a species we have many “irons in the fire” whether the literal branding irons indicated in the title essay; the talking computer of a prolific scholar blinded at age five by an accident; the extraordinary tools of forensic geology; the “tools” of nature that man must understand to manage a half-section of eastern virgin forest; the tools necessary to understand and recycle a fundamental tool of modern man—the tire; the tools of a master mason as he repairs and preserves Plymouth Rock, itself a “tool” by which we have constructed much of our national “history.”

Surely the most interesting tool McPhee reveals is the tool of the human mind, revealed in lapidary prose as hard and sharply defined as the geology that forms both substance and method for much of his writing. Focusing always on the maker and user of the tool, on the men and women who make, use, study, enforce, manage, develop, understand, and litigate tools, McPhee brings to life tools that are in most respects inert, their creation and animation depending on the large-brained hominid with the opposable thumb. His portraits of these toolmakers and users deftly reveal character, captured in speech, revealing the informed intelligence of the men and women who bring to McPhee the specialized knowledge of the cattle industry of Nevada or the geology of the much-traveled Plymouth Rock. A brilliant book, a richly satisfying read, IRONS IN THE FIRE reveals an extraordinary and attractive mind at work.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, January 1, 1997, p. 777.

Civilization. IV, April, 1997, p. 83.

Kirkus Reviews. LXV, February 1, 1997, p. 203.

Library Journal. CXXII, February 15, 1997, p. 136.

Los Angeles Times. April 4, 1997, p. E3.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, April 13, 1997, p. 21.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, January 27, 1997, p. 84.

U.S. News and World Report. CXXII, April 7, 1997, p. 14.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, April 13, 1997, p. 13.