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John McPhee's "Irons in the Fire"

By Blake de Pastino

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  You're probably familiar with this thing called the New Journalism, whether you know it or not. Legions of journalists working today--including many who write for this very paper--cut their teeth on it. And most of them still adhere to its ways, diligently, loyally, with an almost filial respect. They just don't call it new anymore.

In its day, though--the mid-'60s--the New Journalism made waves in an already turbulent era, cross-wiring literature with reportage. As a form of expression, it was both deep in details and high on lyric, and it produced some of the best nonfiction this century has seen. Tom Wolfe reported like he was writing poetry, experimenting with syntax, sound, punctuation. Joan Didion sought out the drama of the everyday and gave it a cool script. Even Hunter S. Thompson, in his own self-obsessed way, fit the mold, submerging himself in the story and drinking it down. At its height, the New Journalism promised to erase the line between the reporter's craft and the novelist's art. But as its critics charged, it also threatened to obscure "the truth" forever.

One of the first New Journalists to meet these charges, strangely, seems rather tame today. But back then, John McPhee was the whetstone that honed the cutting edge. He was, to many, the New Journalist, and he bore the brunt for it. "McPhee is a journalistic spellbinder, that's all," one of his detractors said, in an attempt to dismiss him. And it was true, he did spell-bind. But his stories were also laden with that precious "truth." In Levels of the Game, he made the tennis finals between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner seem like the stuff of medieval legend. In "Travels in Georgia," he ate roadkill with rednecks and willingly played the role of the awkward outsider (in his own story, the resident rednecks referred to him as "the little Yankee bastard"). It was not journalism as others had known it, but it rang true. Now, after 35 years and 14 books, he is at it again with his latest release, Irons In the Fire.

Here are seven essays that bear witness to McPhee's immersive style and his broad range. In the title piece, McPhee rides the Nevada range with the state cattle-brand inspector. Later, there's an exotic car auction in Amish country; then a written history of Plymouth Rock; a mountain of scrap tires in California, and a massive work--the book's keystone--about the practitioners of forensic geology, earth scientists who solve crimes for the FBI.

In itself, this variety says something about the talent of the writer. But what really binds it together is McPhee's spare, trademark style. He describes the burly man at the tire yard by saying only: "He looked farm." At a loss to describe the flurry of a Nevada calf roping, he simply reprints his field notes, naming the ropers with initials: "C-1, roping, misses. C-2 gets bull calf in one leg, loses him, drops rope." His economy of prose is enough to flout any claim that he is somehow outside the journalistic tradition. In fact, compared to some of today's more freewheeling writers--William T. Vollman and David Foster Wallace spring to mind--McPhee seems downright staid. His interests in science lend weight to this impression (most of the pieces here involve one kind of eggheadedness or another), and he's sometimes prone to impenetrable lingo, like this account of how the Plymouth Rock was studied: "from paleomagnetic, petrologic, structural and seismic data interpreted in the light of plate tectonics." Not so spell-binding by contemporary standards.

Fortunately, there's still plenty here to see just why McPhee drew so much fire. In the wet black eyes of cattle, he sees "cavernous bicameral minds." For the sexy, dumb Porsche up at auction, he almost feels pity: "It has the headlights of a flounder. In repose, lying back, they look up at the sky." This is the stuff that the New Journalism was made of, the stuff that made McPhee the model for the scions that followed him. Irons In the Fire is enough to prove that this is where the Wallaces and Vollmans come from, the Nicholson Bakers and the David Sedarises. His work may not be new per se, but McPhee still casts a shadow that can give you a chill. (Farrar Strauss Giroux, cloth, $22)


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