THERE ARE NO FLIES on John McPhee, only the slightest lines of sweat, not enough body odor to warrant mention. His writing is clean, disinfected. Everybody says his prose shines; as usual, everybody is right. But it's the comfortable shine of a well-oiled set of carpenter's tools, fresh from a whetstone. No dancing hot shine of flame, nc shine of the evening ahead playing off fender chrome.
McPhee made his reputation by writing well about a great variety of things-basketball players and orange growers; men who designed strange, useless aircraft; anachronistic citizens of the Hebrides or the Pine Barrens. His latest collection, Giving GoodWeight, which will be released in paperback next week, continues in the same expansive vein. Five stories this time-farmers who sell their produce in Manhattan, an engineer who decides the best site for a nuclear power plant is anchored off the Jersey Shore, a New York Times reporter given to playing pinball, a group of wealthy men making a canoe trip, a chef who cooks exquisite haute cuisine somewhere in the wilds that surround New York City. One's reaction is supposed to be along the lines of "I never thought I'd enjoy reading about floating nuclear power plants." Wonderfully crafted, lovingly rasped and sanded, they are vintage McPhee.
But the essays-the writing, even the topics-show that the blinders protecting the fastest horse in the New Yorker stable are still in place, the blinders guarding him from anything bitterly dark or blindingly light, anything that might make him rear up and head off the track. His is a Roone Arledge view of the world; should one have the luck to visit bobsledding one week, take in cliff-diving in Acapulco the next, and perhaps watch the pounding of the Firecracker 500, then one will have seen sport. McPhee's corollary: the variety of human experience means simply that if he can capture one of everything-accountant and orange grower, chef and outdoorsman, barber and candlestick maker-then he will have captured life.
McPhee, of course, does manage to find a pattern. All his heroes share rationality and expertise, none are geniuses but all are talented. Steering clear of poets, not to mention saints, prostitutes and writers, he concentrates on the sane. His ideals are Jeffersonian-farmers wander in and out of his collections, and inventors rank only below professional canoeists in his pantheon. Meet Richard Eckert, a man given to "gray suits, gray socks, black shoes, white shirts and Paisley ties," who invents the wave-tossed nuke while he is "standing wet, naked and soapy in his shower." This, perhaps, is inspiration of a sort, but a wet and soapy sort. Eckert came out of the shower, "ate his breakfast and told his wife, Joan, that he wanted to launch nuclear power plants as, in effect, ships on the ocean. 'There you go again,' she said."
Even when McPhee looks at professions filled with special men, he manages to find the most detached examples for his observation. Early in career, he profiled Dollar Bill Bradley, one of the four or five greatest college basketball players of all time. A decent man, a hard-working man, a disciplined man, in the last analysis a dull man. McPhee celebrates the cerebral boredom that marked Bradley's game-"He dislikes flam-boyance, and, unlike some of basketball's greatest stars, has apparently never made a move merely to attract attention...Bradley calls practically all men 'Mister' whose age exceeds his won by more than a couple of years." The piece gives some insight into the dynamics of a hook shot, stresses the importance of practice, describes a high polish. But it says almost nothing important; none of the things that could have been said if he had chosen Connie Hawkins as his subject and talked about what it feels like to be the greatest showoff in the world and what it means when you're not a Rhodes scholar and your knees begin to crumble when you come down with a rebound. McPhee calls basketball a series of "compounding alternatives. Everytime a basketball player takes a step, an entire new geometry of action is created around him. In ten seconds, with or without the ball, a good player may see perhaps a hundred alternatives, and from them, make half a dozen choices as he goes along. A great player will see even more alternatives and will make more choices." All of this is theoretically true, if a little over-intellectualized, up to the last sentence. A "great" player doesn't see alternatives; he senses what he can do, knows by instinct how to do it. Something in him says when to shoot, and it has little to do with timing or location, more with prescience and intuition.
INTUITION and instinot seem to have little place in McPhee's writing; McPhee is the ultimate McPhee hero, the quintessential craftsman, who uses his tools so well that he leaves almost no mark on the surfaces he touches. His work is not blemished with the bubbly acne of pain or turmoil; he knows that to address anything too close to the core will mean unsightly mess. He is too polite, too squeamish, or maybe too lazy to examine the innards, to ask his subjects to puke their guts out so he can poke around in them a little. Studs Terkel used the McPhee occupation-centered approach in his voluminous book Working; though he stuck religiously to his tape recordings, he managed, with his questions and with the inflections of an interviewer who understands, to draw out far more of the pain and slight glory of the work-a-day world.
Wonderfully readable prose is rare enough that McPhee's flaws would be only regrettable save for the few flashes of insight he does show, glimmerings of the power and potential that lie below his surface. Seemingly, McPhee's deepest feelings are for the woods, streams and mountains of America-at any rate, The Pine Barrens and Coming Into the Country, an Alaskan saga, are his two finest books. In Giving Good Weight, midway through an account of a canoe trip on which he was accompanied by boatloads of wealthy Harvardians, McPhee shows his understanding of his own mood and of the power of the forest: "Physical labor as a bringer of sleep doesn't seem to do much for me. But the woods do, where thoughts of weather, of food, and of the day's journey so dominate the mind that everything else subsides. The rise and fall of temperature and of wind, the beginning and the end of the rain matter here in a way that is irrelevant elsewhere." Never mind that a few sentences later McPhee has returned to an exhaustive discussion of the latest in camping gear; for a moment, he has cornered hard to capture feeling.
Maybe shallow people need a shallow writer to chronicle their exploits. More likely, though, there are very few shallow people, at least shallow and interesting people. More than likely, it is the writer's attempts that are too superficial, not his subject's lives and thoughts. There is nothing rotten in McPhee, nothing that is decaying or growing or taking Valium. There is no shortage of gift, only, perhaps, of will, for to look honestly and deeply at himself and at others will prove more painful than the labor to which McPhee is accustomed. But contented mediocrity hides not only hurt, but bliss as well. No horse likes blinders.