TABLE OF CONTENTS. By John McPhee. Farrar Straus Giroux. 293 pp. $15.95.
REPORTEDLY staff writers at The New Yorker compete feverishly -- complete with sniping and backbiting -- for space in the magazine. There's one exception, though. When a piece by John McPhee is scheduled, nobody complains.
This forebearance marks McPhee as a writer's writer, the kind professionals prescribe for themselves as an antidote to workaday smugness, the kind they turn to for reminders of how much one sensibility can encompass and enliven. He is also accessible enough to have had a national bestseller -- Coming into the Country, his marvelous Alaska book.
In addition to single-topic books like the Alaskan opus, McPhee periodically produces a collection of his shorter efforts; Table of Contents is the latest such volume. It offers a representative sampling of his interpretive journalism: two pieces on bears; an Alaska footnote on the advent of the telephone to a remote village; an account of a day in the reelection campaign of New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley; two pieces on technology redux (a revival of low-head hydroelectric power and the use of buried ice to cool large buildings); a profile of a Maine game warden whose name also happens to be John McPhee, and a report on a dozen young doctors practicing family medicine in rural America.
If there is a single quality distinguishing McPhee's work from that of other nonfiction writers, it may be his capacity to see the world afresh, to point out unnoticed connections. In one of his bear stories, a cat menaced by a bear takes on the configuration of "the arch of St. Louis." In the ice story the "tentlike Dacron-covered free-span steel structure" protecting the ice is "a cryodesic dome."
One of McPhee's own metaphors can symbolize his visionary power. A family practitioner's driveway "runs through woods, in which the eye threads its way to visible clearings." John McPhee's uncanny eye is always threading its way to clearings unforeseen.
"YOU CAN FOOL ALL OF THE PEOPLE ALL THE TIME" By Art Buchwald Illustrated by Steve Mendelson Putnam. 332 pp. $16.95
WHAT DO Art Buchwald, the cigar-chomping syndicated pundit, and John Donne, the 17th- century Anglican divine and metaphysical poet, have in common? Why, their adeptness at spinning out a conceit to its brain-tickling fullness. Just as Donne might seize the simple image of a biting flea and work it into a complex symbol of corporeal love, so Buchwald -- Well, watch.
The germ for one column in this new collection is that bit of fiscal hocus-pocus known as renegotiating a loan, specifically one from a Western bank to a Third World country. Asked what he does, loan renegotiator Jean Valjean divulges the following. The South American country of Santa Busta, sole natural resource raw Velcro, is about to default on a billion-dollar loan. "What did Santa Busta do with the billion dollars?" asks the Buchwaldian narrator.
"Some of it went for roads, some of it went for Mercedes Benzes, some of it for scotch whiskey, some of it went to pay for tear gas, and quite a bit of it wound up in numbered Swiss bank accounts belonging to Santa Busta politicians in power."
"Okay, so the money was well spent."
And so on for the 700 or 800 words that a Buchwald column comprises.
One of his favorite devices is to grab a trendy term -- let's say "latchkey child" -- and vary it mockingly: latchkey husband, one whose wife has a high-powered job that keeps her working later than he. And nothing presidential is lost on Buchwald. Now that you think about it, isn't there something too convenient about the way President Reagan's helicopter invariably drowns out reporters' questions at departure time on the White House lawn? It's a carefullyorchestrated phenomenon, Buchwald explains, the handiwork of the White House noisemaker.
This is Buchwald's 21st book, his 24th year of turning out his column. Occasionally he shows signs of battle fatigue, and the short-spurt column format can grow tedious after a while, but he remains a Zingermeister. Not Donne yet, Art Buchwald is still our best metaphysical humorist.
ON THE ROAD WITH CHARLES KURALT By Charles Kuralt Putnam. 316 pp. $16.95
". . . IN PURSUIT OF THE AMERICAN DREAM" By Bob Dotson Atheneum. 262 pp. $14.95
AS FAR AS I'm concerned, Dan Rather could give the headlines in five minutes and go home -- provided he handed the rest of The CBS Evening News over to Charles Kuralt. His "On the Road" segments manage to charm and move the viewer without stooping to tricks or pressing the CUTE button. Not being a watcher of "Today," I can't be sure about Bob Dotson but suspect I'd rather watch his roving reports on Americana than all those interviews with the silly and famous.
Even so, I have reservations about each gentleman's new book. That which sparkles on the tube often fails to shine between hard covers. It is one thing to watch Kuralt's segment on Lookingglass, Oregon, the hamlet that sought to better itself by installing a single parking meter, and to chuckle over the piece's conclusion, in which the red violation flag pops up -- and another to read the telescript, which states "expiration flag pops up." Some things have been lost -- immediacy, Kuralt's affable presence, the Barnumesque fun of falling for an obvious sight gag -- for which cold print cannot compensate.
To give credit where it is due, Kuralt's writing is of higher calibre than Dotson's. I can't imagine Kuralt saying a line as smarmy as this one, from Dotson's segment on Clara Hale, who foster-mothers children born addicted to drugs: "There is no magic to what she does, just love, and that is the best magic of all." The problem wth a line like that is the way it sacrifices its subject to bromides. Instead of fresh insights into Mrs. Hale's motives, we get buzzwords.
If you have a video-cassette recorder, you can tape Kuralt and Dotson. If not, you can watch them and remember. These books, in my view, make a weak third choice.
NOT EXACTLY WHAT I HAD IN MIND By Roy Blount Jr. Atlantic Montly Press 224 pp. $14.95.
I CAN'T TELL YOU exactly what makes Roy Blount such a funny writer -- perhaps a dose of comic afflatus administered by the gods. But I can explain why his humor never palls, why this bookful of his magazine and newspaper pieces leaves the reader athirst for more. He draws upon a wonderfully wide range of diction in which to couch his outbursts and witticisms.
As one who hails from Georgia, he probably began talking Goodoldboy as a toddler. Listen to him wield it in this comparison of chili and the much-maligned (in his view) Brunswick stew.
"'Chili' is a sexier term than 'Brunswick stew.' If you doubt it, try saying 'chili-chili-chili-chili-hoo-pah!' in a bouncy, finger-popping kind of tone and then try the same thing with 'Brunswick-stew-Brunswick-stew-ick . . .' I don't think you will get as far as the hoo-pah. No one enjoys setting out toward a hoo-pah and bogging down."
On occasion he can be as erudite as you please, as in a letter home from Lit-Crit camp. "Rondels are dead!" he writes. "Small things are dead! Nothing can live save the major protean."
Then there are my favorites, the times when he mixes argots high and low into a melange of verbal fizz. Here is what he wanted so dearly to say to the general at his base during the Vietnam War.
"Sir! I shouldn't be here. I got married too young and I don't believe in the war. I want to be skinny-dipping and taking consciousness-exfoliating mushrooms with someone who looks like Grace Slick."
He also writes doggerel, which prompts me to clos with some:
You'd be pulling off a major stunt
To hold in your laughter while reading Roy Blount.