John McPhee’s The Patch is a miscellany of previously uncollected pieces from a career that spans 60 years and includes 32 previous books alongside countless profiles and pieces of long-form journalism for Time magazine and The New Yorker.
This output alone is a wonder. To put together this book, comprising some pieces printed in full under the heading “The Sporting Scene” – on fishing, lacrosse, football – and passages from dozens more woven together to brilliant effect in what he calls “An Album Quilt”, McPhee sifted “about two hundred and fifty thousand words and got rid of seventy-five per cent”. And this from a writer who does not blink at spending eight months researching a single piece.
The uniform quality of his writing is equally a wonder, as is the breadth of his interests. The Patch is evidence of a writer who has been given the freedom to follow his nose and has made the absolute most of this freedom. He relishes the opportunity to test his talent and, seemingly, it has never let him down. As at home with profiles of celebrities as he is with science and technology, he has a keen eye for detail and a great facility for the one-liner.
You could focus on any one of his areas of interest to demonstrate this, but his descriptions of celebrities are perhaps most irresistible. Cary Grant, “more or less successfully … spends his real life pretending he is Cary Grant”; Richard Burton “laughs honestly. He lies winningly. He trusts absolutely.” Thomas Wolfe “carrying his eccentricities with him until fame had transformed them into folklore”. On Barbra Streisand: “This nose is a shrine. It starts at the summit of her hive-piled hair and ends where a trombone reaches pedal B flat.” On Marcello Mastroianni: “His handsome face, young in its outlines but creased with premature wrinkles, has a frightened look, as of a mantis who has lost faith in the efficacy of prayer.” Robert Bingham, long-time editor at The New Yorker, “could edit with the corners of his mouth”.
McPhee is never going to be a household name like some of his ’60s contemporaries – his interests are less fashionable, his presence on the page quieter – but collections such as The Patch and his previous book on writing, Draft No. 4, are doing an excellent job of shoring up the legacy of a comparably brilliant career. SH
Text, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 24, 2018 as "John McPhee, The Patch". Subscribe here.