Irons In The Fire, by John McPhee
Does one need a reason to read a book by John McPhee? Given this book, and his many other books, it would appear that the existence of such a book is sufficient to read it, and this book is a good case study as to why that is the place. I have read with pleasure John McPhee write about a wide variety of subjects ranging from those who work in the logistics industry to the geology of the continental United States to those who seek to control nature to the complex and rather Nathanish existence of the carp and still other books to this particular collection of intriguing and thought-provoking essays. This book is certainly not the most coherent of essays–all of the essays included are about real people in real situations but they are varied and distinct otherwise in all kinds of ways, from length to specific subject matter. But that scarcely matters. If you have read much of the author’s work, you have found a great deal to appreciate, and will likely find in here a great deal of writing to appreciate as well. That was certainly the case for me, it must be admitted.
This particular collection of essays is about 200 short pages and contains seven essays. The first essay is called “Irons In The Fire,” and it gives the story of Nevada cattle rustling through the point of view of a brand inspector (and cattleman himself) who the author found out about from a friend. The best kinds of friends are those who give you amazing writing projects, as I am sure McPhee would agree by his immediate response to hearing about the brand inspector’s existence–he flew to Nevada and traveled with the inspector for a few weeks. After that comes “Release,” an account of the author’s conversations with a blind but very interesting man. Then follows a short essay “In Virgin Forest,” which demonstrates the author’s strong interest in ecology. The longest essay in the book comes next, “The Gravel Page,” which examines the complex use of gravel and other military and police forensics in areas as diverse as the history of World War II and the contemporary drug war. “The Duty Of Care” looks at the responsibility and difficulties of dealing with scrapped tires. “Rinard at Manheim” discusses the auction of exotic cars that often fail to meet their owner’s reserve prices. Finally, “Travels Of The Rock” looks at the complex history of the travels and travails of Plymouth Rock.
The worth of this particular project can be indicated by a discussion of the author’s skill in writing, and nowhere is the more evident than in the masterful way that he ends his essays. Two examples in this particular book stand out. In “The Travels Of The Rock,” the author spends about thirty pages discussing the geology and history of Plymouth Rock and its fractures and attempts at reconstructing it and preserving it, and the story ends with a comical response from a young man whose girlfriend wanted to see the rock despite his lack of interest: “It’s a rock! Nothing ever happens to it,” the line with which this book ends, the author previously having indicated just how wrongheaded this view is. Another essay, “Release,” ends with a discussion of the way that George Bernard Shaw spelled fish, “ghoti,” with a voice to text machine spelling the imaginary word “ghoti” as “fish.” When one is dealing with such a master in the style of writing engaging essays about life and creation, why not enjoy a collection of essays no matter how miscellaneous it may be?