Looking for a Ship

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

John McPhee’s readership can be divided into two parts: the geologists and all the rest. For the latter (presumably the larger contingent), it has been hard going in recent years, though both THE CONTROL OF NATURE and RISING FROM THE PLAINS included more human detail and less plate tectonics than their geological predecessors, IN SUSPECT TERRAIN and BASIN AND RANGE. There have been other gems, too, such as “Heirs of General Practice,” about idealistic young doctors in family practice (included in the collection TABLE OF CONTENTS). For many readers, however, LOOKING FOR A SHIP will be McPhee’s most satisfying book since COMING TO THE COUNTRY, his 1977 best-seller about modern-day homesteaders in Alaska.

LOOKING FOR A SHIP is the narrative of a voyage on an American merchant ship, the STELLA LYKES, from Charleston, South Carolina, to the west coast of South America and back, via the Panama Canal. McPhee uses this voyage to dramatize the sad state of the U.S. Merchant Marine and to portray the men who still make their living on the sea. (Geologists will find that they are not entirely neglected, as McPhee quotes some wonderful snippets from Charles Darwin on the geology of South America’s Pacific coast.)

Here, as in so many of McPhee’s books, there is a particularly vivid portrait of an individual who sums up in his character and experience much of the history of the subject at hand--in this case, Captain Paul McHenry Washburn, a veteran of the old school, whose crusty manner and supreme competence bring to mind John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn.

With its luminous and telling details, its deadpan humor (the Masters, Mates, and Pilots hall in Charleston is located in a shabby building “not far from the Truluck Chiropractic Auto Accident Clinic”), and its unobtrusively artful structure, LOOKING FOR A SHIP is a delight from the first page to the last.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVI, July, 1990, p.2043.

Chicago Tribune. September 16, 1990, XIV, p.6.

The Christian Science Monitor. September 21, 1990, p.14.

Christianity and Crisis. L, October22, 1990, p.313.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, July 1, 1990, p.919.

Library Journal. CXV, August, 1990, p.128.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 26, 1990, p.1.

National Review. XLII, November 19, 1990, p.48.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, September 23, 1990, p.3.

Publishers Weekly CCXXXVII, July 20, 1990, p.43.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, September 9, 1990, p.1.