Is there any subject that John McPhee cannot make interesting? As a staff writer for The New Yorker for more than 40 years, the peripatetic journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner has taken on such unexpected topics as the Swiss army, the American shad, the geological history of North America, cattle rustling, New Jersey's Pine Barrens, Alaska and oranges. Each time he has proven that there is much we should know about things we didn't even know we cared about in the first place.
In his 28th book, Uncommon Carriers, McPhee does it again, this time infiltrating the world of freight transportation in its various guises. He rides shotgun in a hazmat tanker truck during a cross-country haul and spends 16-hour shifts in the pilothouse of a barge towboat on the Illinois River. He rides the rails on a 7,000-foot-long coal train and attends ship-handling school on a lake in the French Alps where everything is scaled down in what McPhee dubs a combination of a miniature golf course and Caltech. En route he encounters an assortment of idiosyncratic characters hardworking men and women who are experts in their fields and take pride in their work.
As is often the case in a McPhee chronicle, it is these people who bring the stories to life, and he affords them the respect they deserve as he records their singular experiences. But even as we come to know Don Ainsworth, the intelligent, fastidious owner-driver of a meticulously kept 18-wheeler, or Mel and Tom, co-pilots of the towboat Billy Joe Boling, it is McPhee's unbridled inquisitiveness and unrivaled talent for finding the peculiar details that keep us reading. We learn, for instance, that some tank wash facilities, where the containers of food-transporting trucks are flushed out between hauls, have a rabbi standing by to assure they are kosher. It is bad luck to utter the word lapin (rabbit) on a French ship. A subculture of more than 100,000 train watchers lurks in this country, and there are more transients hopping illegal rides on freight trains today than there were during the 1930s. In perhaps the most fascinating piece, McPhee visits the UPS hub at the Louisville, Kentucky, airport, where 5,000 workers sort a million packages every night. The building, with four million square feet of floor space and five miles of exterior walls, houses an almost entirely automated skein of conveyors where packages containing everything from Jockey shorts to live lobsters find their rightful destination in minutes a sort of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory for the world of mail-order commerce.
Only one piece in the collection seems out of place, the transport connection a shade tenuous. McPhee and his son-in-law spend five days in a canoe, retracing the route Henry David Thoreau wrote about in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Though there is no freight involved, it is an engaging essay nonetheless, as the canoeists encounter a terrain much changed since the 19th century. The journey up river prompts McPhee to write, A two-mile digression is not a rarity in Thoreau. He is, to a fare-thee-well, an author with the courage to digress. Is this not a fitting assessment of McPhee as well, heir-apparent to Thoreau, with his indefatigable curiosity about the world around him and the narrative talents to share it with us, his fortunate readers? California writer Robert Weibezahl is the author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead and an editor of the award-winning Taste of Murder anthologies.