As essayists go, John McPhee has be come something of a celebrity. He has been praised in places as diverse as National Review and National Public Radio; he has written 18 books and no telling how many articles; moreover, he is said to be the best thing The New Yorker, in its decrepitude, has going for it. From the interview on NPR, he seems to be a likable man and a talented writer capable of turning out essays on subjects as far apart as politics and geology. But it is hard to know what to say about Table of Contents. There is much to admire in McPhee’s meticulous reporting and amusing style (after all, it’s not every writer who can compare himself carrying a pair of skis and poles to “a walling swastika” and make it work). At the same time, I finished the book wishing that it had ended about 100 pages earlier. Two essays, “Heirs of General Practice” and “Minihydro,” though interesting in premise, become boring simply be cause McPhee does not know when to stop. Whether the problem is McPhee’s too-keen powers of observation or his not-too-keen sense of what to edit, the book is too long.
There is also a faint but unpleasant odor of fashionable politics. Only one essay out of eight can be considered political (“Open Man”: a day in the life of Senator Bill Bradley), but Mc Phee seems to drop little hints, now and again. For example, while discuss ing the business of pne group of young doctors, McPhee mentions quite nonchalantly that some of its members have long had a “sensitivity to global ecology” (one of the woman doctors is “”actively concerned about nuclear energy, nuclear weaponry, and lesser environmental issues”). In “Mini hydro,” an essay about the attempts of conservationists and entrepreneurs to harness the power from small water sources and sell it to state authorities, we learn that the daughter of the owner of one site is on the staff of the Village Voice. From these and other observations, the reader is likely to conclude that the backwoods of America are teeming with Siena Clubbers and disgruntled McGovernites just waiting for their chance to send the country back to the Stone Age.
McPhee’s political sympathies, however, are no more than a minor irritant, mainly (and ironically) be cause his American portrait contains so many conservative traits. In the aggregate, the men and women who fill the pages of Table of Contents are hardworking, ingenious, individualistic, and acquisitive, with a strong sense of community. These men-who search New York state for abandoned hydroelectric dams and who start primitive electric companies in Alaska—are out to make as much money as they can. If they manage to benefit those around them as well as them selves (they almost invariably do), that’s fine too. On balance, McPhee’s America has more in common with that of George Gilder than of Carl Sagan or Charles Reich; but, then, America always has.
Still, I cannot claim to have garnered much from Table of Contents except a few odd facts about bears and senators in New Jersey, GP’s in Maine, and entrepreneurs in Alaska. Like odd people we meet on trips or jokes we hear at work, they are only briefly memorable. This is because McPhee does not grasp the significance of what he sees. We may read him with pleasure, but we will probably forget in short order what the pleasure was all about.
[Table of Contents, by John McPhee (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) $15.95]