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A Reassuring World

Pieces of the Frame by John McPhee Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 308 pp.; $10.00

By Nicholas Lemann

THERE is a place in John McPhee's new collection of magazine articles, Pieces of the Frame, where two photographers from New York City go up in the country to cut some firewood. They stop on the way to rent a chainsaw at a place called Paden Rental and, they being artists from New York City, it takes the store's owner a while to get his bearings. "Paden, if that was his name," McPhee writes, "looked from one customer to another with an expression that seemed to suggest that this energy crisis had started some extremely novel trends."

Pieces of the Frame is a book that is somehow out of synch with the body of American magazine journalism, and the phrase about Paden is typical of its differentness. McPhee could easily enough have asked the man renting chain saws what his name was, and avoided having to say "Paden, if that was his name." It's certainly one of the prevailing canons of all levels of journalism that writers shouldn't leave out facts, or that if for some reason they are forced to they should at least make a better effort to cover their tracks.

McPhee is nothing if not professional, though, and it's doubtful his slip was accidental. Instead. he seems--heresy of heresies--to have left out a fact on purpose, apparently because he is more interested at that particular moment in conveying things through the eyes of the New York photographers. They don't know the rental agent's name so neither will McPhee's readers. By concerning himself with things like point of view and particularly with achieving a certain kind of narrative tone, McPhee sacrifices the kind of reportorial strictness and tone that readers of journalism are used to.

The tone is the key to it all; it lets McPhee write in an unusually personal way. He begins an article about Loch Ness, home of the monster, by telling his readers that he and his wife and four daughters were sitting next to the Loch picnicking on "milk, potato sticks, lambs' tongues, shortbread, white chocolate, Mini-Dunlop cheese." Another article is about a basketball game McPhee played in some time ago. Another, about a white-water canoeing championship, spends much of its time talking about the kinds of canoes McPhee paddled in as a child and how he went about entering the races himself. Usually this kind of stuff--the journalism of self-indulgence--works only when the person writing it has a notoriety sufficient to make anything he does interesting to read about.

McPhee, however, has accomplished quite a trick: he has gotten himself so perfectly attuned to his audience that he can write the way he does without beginning to grate. Part of it is that he is an extraordinarily meticulous writer, able to achieve an effortless, limpid tone without leaving any loose sentence ends, or losing the thread of his story, or using words that do not belong exactly where they are. His articles seem to convey information almost by accident and to flow along without any forethought, McPhee having just sat down and written out his impressions of something as he remembered them.

None of that is really the case, of course. When McPhee wants to he bristles with facts, peculiar laundry lists of numbers, even, stuck in odd-seeming places. And the seamlessness of his writing--it's nearly impossible to look back on one of his studies and think, despite their division into vignettes, that anything should have been put somewhere else--shows how carefully he organizes.

McPhee appears to be well aware, though, that he is writing for people who want primarily to be entertained rather than informed, people who are not looking to be dazzled or shocked or spurred into action, but to have a pleasant time reading. He is entirely successful; Pieces of the Frame is pleasant throughout, never jarring. The strongest reaction it produces is an occasional moment of wonderment at the sheer unassuming virtuosity of a particular turn of phrase or paragraph or article. It is all, along with everything else, in perfect good taste.

Writers tend to choose subjects that go along with their style and what they are trying to say; Tom Wolfe, for instance, used to write about social outcasts with strange, frenetic lifestyles because he wrote frenetically and believed the prevailing middle-class ways of living were becoming out-dated. McPhee writes about things that are generally as sedate as his style--tennis, Scotch whiskey, conservation--and that are diversions, not threats, for the upper-middle class, educated Easterners who make up his audience. His subject matter is often identical with the subject matter of the lush advertisements that surround his New Yorker articles. His articles are peopled with abundant heroes and few villains; his characters are proof that all over the world there are nice people who are friendly and unprepossessing and do good things. Ambition and greed and complexity and tragedy play little part in McPhee's reassuring world.

The best things in Pieces of the Frame are outside this comfortable sphere--an article about a lucrative quarterhorse race in New Mexico and one about the decay of Atlantic City. In both McPhee the educated family man on vaction fades away; he is not present at all in the racing article, and he takes on an unusual, ghostly Monopoly-playing persona in Atlantic City. The removal helps, because it gets rid of the chummy, comfortable tone that dominates the rest of the book. McPhee's writing works best when he is confronting the unfamiliar and making an effort to convey it, not when he's recounting things that only reinforce his own view of the world.

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