Writers to (Re)Read: John McPhee

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As I reread John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, I had to keep reminding myself that everything I loved about it—the narration, the dialogue, the descriptions, the characterizations—was all brand new when this book was written. It was easy to forget that this book came out in 1975. Seems as fresh today as it did then. And that gave me pause, especially as I continually had to remind myself that this book is older than I am. Visions of Sarah Palin hunting from a plane kept interfering, as well as images of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.

On a simple nonfiction level, I will instantly love any writer who gives me high exposition to grab onto, that level of thought process that’s elevated above simple exposition towards the universal qualities of whatever the writer sees in this particular subject. McPhee does not do so often, because to insert himself so deliberately into the prose defeats his purpose, but moments like

What had struck me most in the isolation of this wilderness was an abiding sense of paradox. In its raw, convincing emphasis on the irrelevance of the visitor, it was forcefully, importantly repellent. It was no less strongly attractive—with a beauty of nowhere else, composed in turning circles. If the wild land was indifferent, it gave a sense of difference. If at moments it was frightening, requiring an effort to put down the conflagrationary imagination, it also augmented the touch of life. This was not a dare with nature. This was nature (93)

are worth the price of the book all on their own.   I’m going to have to reread Table of Contents sometime soon.

The terse style of sentencing, simple, gave me several effects: humor without being funny, pacing and style, and it gave me glimpses of the author. For instance: “Everywhere around us were mountains—steep, treeless, buff where still in the sun. One was bright silver. The rain felt good. We nibbled M&Ms. They were even better than the rain” (56). When I tell my students to watch out for the construction of their sentences, it is often to get them to pay attention to the fact that starting every sentence subject-verb, subject-verb sets up a pacing that requires a brand new start after every period. Sometimes this sets up a pacing that lulls the reader to sleep, but sometimes, the terseness of McPhee’s sentencing (which is also similar to the fiction of John Keeble that I’m reading right now) creates a distance between the author and the narrator, something I was surprised that I liked. One possible explanation for that might be because the distance was closed by the rich details and the way the narrative and exposition were woven together. The other effect is humor that seems to come out of nowhere:

Kauffmann was still reminding me that this was our last opportunity to save the final American wilderness when Snake Eyes bought the river. The thought occurred to me as I pitched head first into the rushing that I had not often involuntarily overturned on a river trip, and that on almost all the occasions when I had the last thing I had seen on my way to the bottom was Kauffmann. Tact restrained me from mentioning this to him until he had come up out of the water” (90).

In writing the primary action in this way, McPhee is able to show what happened without making the incident all about himself. This book is not about him. As a journalist, he knows that.

McPhee’s seamless interweaving of the main thread of the narrative with the exposition, information, and backstory essential to making this piece relevant, giving it warrant, establishing the “so what.” Part of this is simple history and information, but McPhee uses interviews in a way I’ve not seen before. Like his other exposition, the use of the interviews, whether the people are government officials or local townspeople, is seamlessly used and the dialogue itself owes itself more to fiction than journalism. McPhee is present in the conversation, but using creative nonfiction techniques that allow for memory issues and editing for clarity (and such things), the conversations are less clunky than some I’ve read—and he keeps the focus on the person he’s interviewing, rather than himself as the interviewer. But then he will often break into a section of unrestrained dialogue with no speaker tags to identify who is involved in the conversation, if it is just one or two people or seven or eight. The effect offers a journalist’s anonymity to the interviews he’s done, perhaps giving a more honest portrayal of the person or issue he’s exploring. I got tired of it after a while—especially in “Coming into the Country—but I appreciated how the technique added to the depth of the piece.

Structurally, beginning every section of “Coming into the Country” with a different person and the year they came into the country, and then taking that individual thread and weaving it with the person who came before, had the effect of drawing a very subtle picture of Alaska and how many types of Alaskans there are in country. I was surprised, though, that the book was so heavily white men—with very little attention given to women or the native population. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.

The descriptions of people (part of me was thankful that he did not wax poetic about the landscape views) that McPhee used resonated well with the fiction techniques I’m learning via Jonis Agee, as I took her novel class this spring and just finished my novel very recently. Resorting to “hair and eyes” descriptions would earn us a look. McPhee’s description of Dick Cook is a good example of a skill with physical description that most fiction writers cannot master, though I don’t know why I’m setting up fiction writers and nonfiction writers as in competition, why I have any belief that fiction writers have a monopoly on descriptions, characterizations, dialogue. Here’s Dick Cook:

Cook is somewhat below the threshold of slender. He is fatless. His figure is a little stooped, unprepossessing, but his legs and arms are strong beyond the mere requirements of the athlete. He looks like a scarecrow made of cables. All his features are feral—his chin, his nose, his dark eyes. His hair, which is nearly black, has gone far from his forehead. His scalp is bare all the way back to, more or less, his north pole. The growth beyond—dense, streaked with gray—cantilevers to the sides in unbarbered profusion, so that his own hair appears to be a parka ruff. His voice is soft, gentle—his words polite. When he is being pedagogical, the voice goes up several registers, and becomes hortative and sharp. He is not infrequently pedagogical (189).

Sometimes he uses a piece of clothing to characterize an entire person, like John Borg: “He has a narrow-brimmed cap made from camouflage cloth that, once on his head, is unlikely to come off, indoors or out, and gives him a boyish, jaunty air as he cancels stamps, weighs packages, and exercises his quick, ironic wit” (193). It’s a technique that I’ve been working on—and mostly failing at—because characterizations and descriptions are not confined to fiction. I once heard Dinty Moore talking about characterization in nonfiction, and he said that just because we know these people we’re writing about well (family, friends, etc), that doesn’t mean that the readers will. And they’ll want to know more than hair and eyes.

There’s more importance in Coming into the Country than just the place it holds in the canon of nonfiction. It’s one of the first subgenre-crossing works to come out as nonfiction was grabbing a literary foothold, moving it out of journalism or journal entries. The New Journalism he’s employing here (even as I dislike the notion of it, for reasons I have briefly discussed) means he can combine literary techniques with travel writing and place writing, which makes what he’s doing more than a guide book. As I’m particularly interested with place and travel writing, this is an important book to have in my head.

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