Saturday, June 29, 2013
July 1, 2013 Issue
Part of the pleasure of reading John McPhee’s recent work is noting the allusions to some of his previous pieces. His delightful "The Orange Trapper," in this week’s issue, contains a number of such references. For example, George Hackl is mentioned (“Ask George Hackl, who grew up playing golf on courses around Princeton …”). Is this the same George Hackl who joined McPhee for that tasty feed of shad with whisky sauce in the Appendix of McPhee’s The Founding Fish (2002)? I believe it is. Another example is the anecdote about the Guayas River pirate who takes a sailor’s watch, looks at it, and gives it back to him because it isn’t good enough. This is out of McPhee’s great Looking for a Ship (1990). His reference, in “The Orange Trapper,” to “river batture” is an echo from his masterly “Atchafalaya” (The New Yorker, February 23, 1987; included in his 1989 collection, The Control of Nature): “In the river batture – the silt-swept no man’s land between waterline and levee – lone egrets sat in trees, waiting for the next cow.”
“The Orange Trapper” is also enormously enjoyable for its surreal sentences (e.g., “Tulip poplars tend to smear”; “If more than one player is using a Callaway 3 HX HOT BITE or a Pinnacle 4 GOLD FX LONG – or, far more commonly, there’s a coincidence of Titleists – you need your own pine tree”). They’re surreal in the sense that their word juxtapositions startle. But what’s really interesting about them is that, unlike surreal painting and poetry, they describe real life. Consider, for example, McPhee’s description of a hiking-and-birding trail:
This is not on one of my biking routes, but on solo rides I have been there, and returned there, inspired by curiosity and a longing for variety and, not least, the observation that in the thickets and copses and wild thorny bushes on the inside of Jasna Polana’s chain-link fence are golf balls – Big Bank golf balls, Big Pharma golf balls, C-level golf balls (C.E.O., C.O.O., C.F.O. golf balls), lying there abandoned forever by people who are snorkeling in Caneel Bay.
That “in the thickets and copses and wild thorny bushes on the inside of Jasna Polana’s chain-link fence” is wonderful. But what makes the construction a true McPhee is that inspired last bit – “lying there abandoned forever by people who are snorkeling in Caneel Bay.” I’m willing to bet that in all of literature, no writer has ever before combined “biking routes,” “solo rides,” “thickets and copses and wild thorny roses,” “Jasna Polana’s chain-link fence,” “golf balls,” “Big Pharma,” “abandoned,” “snorkeling in Caneel Bay” in one line. It’s a gorgeous, cabinet-of wonders sentence, one among many, in a terrific piece. I enjoyed “The Orange Trapper” immensely.