Pieces of the Frame by John McPhee 1975

Continuing my reading of McPhee’s oeuvre with his 11th book, and it is only fitting that the book contains 11 essays written between 1963 and 1975 and published originally in Playboy, Holiday, the Atlantic, and The New Yorker (8).  They demonstrate the extraordinary scope of McPhee’s interests from Georgia to Scotland, from tennis to horse racing, from single malt scotch to our national parks and always with a focus on the idiosyncratic personality and character of an individual central to his story.  I was pleasantly surprised by the relevance and vibrancy of these pieces, mostly written more than 50 years ago.  Each essay was a treat, though I must admit that McPhee’s devotion to tennis arcana and trivia did try my patience in a 40 page essay about Wimbledon in 1972.

Two essays were far and away my favorites.  ‘Ranger’ dealt with George Hartzog who was the Director of the National Park Service in the late 1960’s until being fired by Richard Nixon.  A fascinating, creative, hard-driving, cigar-smoking advocate for public spaces, especially for city dwellers, Hartzog comes to life in McPhee’s writing.  The other wonderful essay is the final one about the All American Futurity horse race in Ruidoso, New Mexico.  Started in 1959 with a novel way of raising a purse (i.e. entrants pay entry fees), the race became the richest quarter horse race in the country by 1973 with a $1.5 million purse up for grabs for the eventual 10 horses in the finals.  We meet Bill Smith of Pie Ridge, Arkansas and follow him and his horse, Calcutta Deck as they drive from Arkansas to New Mexico and prepare for the race. I won’t ruin the suspense by providing the final outcome, but believe me, this essay reads like a fantastic page turning mystery.

McPhee remains one of the all time best.