John McPhee is one of America's finest essay journalists. Reporter of the offbeat and the arcane, he is a careful, graceful writer. Although most often credited for his ability to dazzle with facts (a power company "knew the exact distance -- eleven and two-tenths miles -- from the nuclear site to the nearest dairy cow"), McPhee, like a novelist, puts people at the center of his work.
This collection of five essays written for The New Yorker over the last four years is an excellent sampler of McPhee's writing. "The Keel of Lake Dickey" is an account of a 100-mile canoe trip on Maine's St. John River. The wild river is under the threat of damming by the Army Corps of Engineers, who "came through with a handsome benefit-to-cost ratio, indicating the shrewd Yankee good sense of building the dam, with computations based on a three-and-a-quarter percent interest rate and zero future inflation." Throughout the essay, McPhee combines his respect for things natural with sharp depictions of his fellow canoers. Listening to a 78-year-old lover of the woods is "like listening to a ballgame on the radio." The hours fly by. The piece seems to have been a warmup for McPhee's masterful "Coming Into the Country." (With that book's topic -- Alaska -- he found a subject large enough to fully challenge his narrative talent.)
"The Atlantic Generating Station" details the elaborate plans to build a nuclear power plant off the coast of New Jersey. At the end, McPhee notes that the project has been put off but not killed, and "like bulbs around a mirror, floating nuclear plants might one day edge the seas."
The shortest piece -- "The Pinball Philosophy," about two addicts' fanaticism -- is the least satisfying. In 10 pages, McPhee barely gets going. The subject fails to inspire the unique investigation that we have come to expect from him and that we find in the marvelous extended essays that open and close the book.
For the title piece, about farmers' markets in New York City, McPhee worked on farms and traveled with the farmers into the city to sell their produce. A farmer from an upstate county finds economic salvation selling to city dwellers, in a single day, for example, as many as 1,500 dozen eggs, 5,000 ears of corn, three-quarters of a ton of tomatoes. For their part, the urbanites get fresh vegetables and "good weight" ("I give them two pounds always for a pound and a half"). The system works, but McPhee's people are the story, Farmers prefer the customers at the Brooklyn and Harlem markets: one returns egg boxes from the previous week; another has never seen peaches with fuzz. Less genial are the Upper East Siders who frequent the 59th Street market: the "corporate-echelon pinstripe men" whose perfectly coiffed silver hair "appears to have been audited"; the women who wear gloves and argue over pennies.
"Brigade de Cusine" caused an uproar when it was published in The New Yorker. McPhee's paean to his favorite chef, an eccentric who "never stuffed a mushroom the same way twice," is an appreciation of good food, honestly prepared, that was not savored by New York food critics and restaurateurs. The chef, "Otto," craved anonymity as much as he did truffles, and McPhee divulged neither his identity nor his country's inn's location. The New York Times tracked Otto down, and its restaurant critic questioned McPhee's high praise of Otto. A New York weekly, noted for its Times-watching, vilified the Times and sent its own contingent to see Otto. Otto moved. The controversy didn't end. McPhee had reported that while dining at Lutece -- one of the Big Apple's favorite "frog ponds," complete with "funeral snobs . . . who carry the food from the kitchen" -- Otto speculated that the trubot was frozen. An outraged Lutece chef produced documentation to the contrary. The New Yorker ran a rare correction. No matter; the writing in this essay is as good as the food it describes. "The dacquoise resembles cake and puts up a slight crunchy resistance before it effects a melting disappearance between tongue and palate and a swift transduction through the blood-stream to a light in the brain as a poem." That's why I read McPhee aloud.