This account of capitalism on the move is worth the ride

Review Freight


Uncommon Carriers

John McPhee

Farrar, Straus and Giroux / 248 pages / $24

A staff writer for The New Yorker for four decades, and a journalist with the instincts of an anthropologist, John McPhee is one of America's most perceptive guides to the natural and built environments. Uncommon Carriers is his most recent anthology of previously published pieces. With the exception of the Thoreauvian "Five Days on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," which fits the collection like a glove fits a handbag, the essays explore the people and processes involved in the transportation of freight. McPhee accompanies coal, cranberry juice, pig iron, WD-40, and live lobsters on the trucks, trains, planes and barges that take them to market.

McPhee is a masterful stylist whose forte is thick description. During his 3,190-mile journey on Don Ainsworth's 65-foot chemical tanker, he learns about Truckstop Ministries, Inc. and why tank washers get killed by nitrogen blankets. He also gets a crash course in trucker lingo: A moving van is a "bed bugger." A motorcycle is a "murdercycle" or "crotch rocket," driven by a person wearing "a skid lid." Ainsworth's heaven is "this month's Playmate in the passenger seat, last month's in the sleeper, and diesel fuel at ten cents a gallon tax paid." But, like most of McPhee's protagonists, Ainsworth doesn't fit the trucker stereotype. He fishes for walleye, uses the word "paucity," knows about circadian rhythms and reads The Wall Street Journal, Joan Didion, William Saroyan and Cormac McCarthy.

But commodities and vehicles are the stars of Uncommon Carriers. The more blood protein lobsters have, McPhee tells us, the longer they can be stored. Stressed by long-distance travel on highways or in the friendly skies, lobsters lose weight and accumulate ammonia. So, Clearwater Seafoods in Arichat, Nova Scotia, moves them in 18-wheelers, 30,000 at a time, to a rest-and-rehabilitation reservoir near the UPS airport superhub in Louisville, Ky. Steve Price and Dennis Oikle hold the record for the run: 27 1/2 hours. But even at a more leisurely 29 hours, the mortality rate, which was 12 percent before UPS got its claws on the lobster business, has been cut in half. Within two weeks, thanks to the automated UPS "sort" in a facility with 4 million square feet of floor space, the choice specimens will be on somebody's dinner table. Weak lobsters, whose tails droop, end their earthly existence on a Chinese buffet. Dead lobsters, whose tails curl up when zapped with an electrode, are bound for a bisque. And those whose tails won't budge at all, "the rots," will sleep with the fishes - after a detour at the bait and tackle shop.

Like Thomas Friedman in The World is Flat, McPhee sometimes gets carried away by the practice and promise of technology. To get speed, efficiency, more consumer choices and lower prices, he seems to imply, Americans have had to pay only a small fee in environmental and human degradation. Pollution makes a few cameo appearances in Uncommon Carriers, but McPhee's tone does not convey a sense of urgency. Thanks to the Clean Water Act of 1972, he writes, one of "the highest legislative accomplishments of the twentieth century," the Illinois River is not foul as it once was, though, "It has a permanent tan, a beige opacity from agricultural runoff." In Massachusetts, the discharge from the Nashua Wastewater Treatment Facility "smelled like laundry detergent and chlorine, nothing worse," and the 300,000 people who live along the Merrimack River drink from it.

There is, as well, an air of inevitability about automation in Uncommon Carriers. Before long, a mineralogist "casually predicts," trains will travel from coast to coast by remote control without a single crewman on board. "The railroads want to go on one-man-only," a union official replies, "They're not going to get that." That's false bravado, McPhee suggests. While T-shirts boast "Union Fish Strike More," railroad mergers proceed apace and robots are beginning to relieve the traffic congestion caused by the federal mandate that after 12 hours a crewman is "dead on the law" and must stop the train and get off, even if he's in the middle of the Great Salt Lake Desert.

None of this is to suggest that Uncommon Carriers is more interested in analysis than narrative. As McPhee admits, "There were times, in holes when I was up to my armpits. Among armpits on this planet, mine do not imply great depth." Maybe not, but even if Uncommon Carriers does not linger long enough in darkness and dirt, it supplies an uncommonly engaging and edifying tour of transportation.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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