McPhee's 'Irons' - journey with fact

April 06, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

"Irons in the Fire," by John McPhee. FSG. 216 pages. $22.

For years, John McPhee has taught a writing course at Princeton University called "The Literature of Fact." It's a title that explains both his unique approach to journalism and the central problem of his work. Fact, artfully arranged, can have the shape and the song of literature - or it can collapse under its own weight.

McPhee is known as the dean of "literary journalists," but sometimes his exhaustive assemblages of detail, as abundant and minute as the geological specimens he is fond of cataloging, bury the story. At its best, his writing creates its own wonderful topographical map of the ways of the world, contemplated with both microscopic closeness and cosmic breadth.

Fortunately for readers, such a splendid guide can be found in the collected essays of "Irons in the Fire," McPhee's 24th book. In their best moments, these seven pieces evoke a sense of mystery and quiet adventure that will hook any reader intrigued with the interplay of man and earth.

Unlike some of McPhee's collections, which have been criticized for lack of cohesion in theme, these essays have as a common subject journey-making, be it over the wide open spaces of Nevada or across the inscrutable gulf between thought and verbalization.

Several of the essays allow McPhee to indulge in one of his favorite subjects: the earth itself. "The Gravel Page" tells us how geologists quietly solve the puzzles of criminals who don't realize how identifiable is the dirt they leave behind. "Travels of the Rock," about the origins and disintegrations of Plymouth Rock, nicely marries intricate descriptions of the formation of the New England coastline with this metaphysical notion: The ground the Pilgrims thought was new was, geologically speaking, not.

The most brilliant piece in this collection, "Release," has nothing to do with geology, but everything to do with the haphazard terrain of the English language. At nine pages, its brevity sacrifices nothing. The details of professor and writer Robert Russell's struggles with his talking computer are so finely chosen that each one commands attention, telling us volumes more than some of McPhee's longer, more laborious essays.

The control is so exquisite that McPhee's familiar circuitousness becomes enjoyable: I didn't mind, and in fact celebrated, that it took him four pages to articulate the central fact that Russell is blind. An added bonus was the warm, incisive humor that suffused "Release"; McPhee is often too stingy with this side of himself.

The least successful piece, "Rinard at Manheim," is little more than the rambling monologue of a dealer in exotic cars. It's an interesting departure - purely impressionistic, the essay gives the reader over almost entirely to its central character - but the piece leaves one more conscious of the conceit than of any enduring portrait of Rinard.

But this is one flawed stone in a beautifully crafted collection. "Irons in the Fire" is a trip well worth taking.

Kate Shatzkin covers courts and prisons for The Sun. Previous to that she studied at Yale Law School and spent much of her nine years as a journalist reporting on legal and social issues.

! Pub Date: 4/06/97

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