Uncommon Carriers is a delightful collection of essays and profiles by one of the world's greatest living writers of nonfiction. John McPhee's prose sparkles as he rides along with truckers, towboat pilots, railroad engineers, supertanker captains, and others. Always his companions come across as real people, for whom McPhee has immense respect. Sample snippets follow.

In "A Fleet of One", with a surprisingly literate long-haul truck driver:

"Do you know of a writer named Joan Didion?" he had asked me in North Carolina.

I was too shy to say, "Take the 'of' out."

In "The Ships of Port Revel":

... This evolves into an exchange of French and American expressions for dying. With uninventive phrases like "kicked the bucket," "bought the farm," and so forth, the Americans quickly run up something of a trade deficit, for the French — over the Camembert — mention the gentle announcement "He has stopped eating," and add to that what appears to be the ultimate word on this topic: "He has swallowed his birth certificate."

and later in that same article:

While waves and currents matter plenty, nothing affects these big heavy ships so much as wind. When engineers at SOGREAH (the Société Grenobloise d'Etudes et d'Applications Hydrauliques) were first designing this evident combination of a miniature golf course and Caltech, their most sensitive consideration was wind. In any marine setting — any Atlantic or Mediterranean port — there was too much of it, because wind, like all else, had to be figured to scale. The math said that a ten-knot wind against the models would equal a fifty-knot wind on the actual sea. There was too much wind in the three deep valleys of Grenoble. So the company went to the foothills and found what Philippe Delesalle describes as "a small lake in the middle of nowhere sheltered by a forest." When a breeze ruffles the surface, our wind-speed indicators will read thirty or forty knots, and although the model ships may weight twenty actual tons, they can be blown off course.

There are also some arch, naughty bits. Those of delicate sensibilities may wish to skip the following clipping from "Tight-Assed River", as a tug pushing a thousand feet of cargo barges in front of it passes a passenger boat on the Illinois River:

... Two men and two women are in the cabin boat. The nearest woman — seated left rear in the open part of the cockpit — is wearing a black-and-gold two-piece bathing suit. She has the sort of body you to go see in marble. She has golden hair. Quickly, deftly, she reaches with both hands behind her back and unclasps her top. Setting it on her lap, she swivels ninety degrees to face the towboat square. Shoulders back, cheeks high, she holds her pose without retreat. In her ample presentation there is defiance of gravity. There is no angle of repose. She is a siren and these are her songs. She is Henry Moore's "Oval with Points." Moore said, "Rounded forms convey an idea of fruitfulness, maturity, probably because the earth, women's breasts, and most fruits are rounded, and these shapes are important because they have this background in our habits of perception. I think the humanist organic element will always be for me of fundamental importance in sculpture." She has not moved — this half-naked maja out-nakeding the whole one. Her nipples are a pair of eyes staring the towboat down. For my part, I want to leap off the tow, swim to her, and ask if there is anything I can do to help. We can now read the name on the transom behind her: Empty Pockets II.

Later, as John McPhee speaks to the towboat's pilot:

I say to Mel, "I thought that was just a myth — that it didn't happen."

Mel says, "It happens all the time."

And then there's McPhee's techno-rhapsodic description of the UPS hub in the middle of Kentucky's Louisville International Airport — a dazzling hyperdimensional space of conveyor belts, scanners, and actuators which does the magic of sorting:

... You see packages in every direction moving on a dozen levels and two principal floors, which are perforated by spaces that allow the belts to climb to all levels and descend ultimately to the level of the airplanes. Over all, this labyrinth, which out-thinks the people who employ it, is something like the interior of the computers that run it. Like printed circuitry, seven great loops, each a thousand feet around, are superposed at right angles above other loops. A fly fisherman would admire the proportions of these loops, which are like perfect casts, the two sides close and parallel, the turns at the ends tight. Unending sequences of letters and small packages zip around these loops, while the larger packages follow one another on the belts, each package tailgating the one in front of it but electronically forbidden to touch it. When a collision seems imminent where belts converge, the guilty package stops dead in its tracks and awaits its turn to move on. Collectively, the loops are like the circuits in the motherboards among the interface cards of a central processing unit wherein whole packages seeking specific airplanes are ones and zeroes moving through the chips.

(cf. SenseOfWhereYouAre (4 Jun 1999), InvisibleWriting (16 Dec 1999), DefensiveQuestions (12 May 2000), WorldTradeCenter (11 Sep 2001), IndianRiver (30 Jul 2004), ...)

TopicLiterature - TopicHumor - TopicArt - 2007-04-23

(correlates: HumanGenomania, RansomOfRussianArt, Comments on Nobel Neutrinos, ...)