The Patch, John McPhee 2018
John McPhee, still teaching creative writing at Princeton at 85, is an American treasure. In this, his 33rd book, he collects short pieces, both published and unpublished, from his past writings to put together an ‘album quilt’ where each patch or block differs from the others “trying to make something, not just preserve it, and hoping that the result would be engaging to read.” I think he has very much succeeded. The first section of the book, entitled The Sporting Scene, has longer essays about fishing, Princeton football where his father was the team doctor for every sport for many years, usually bringing young John along, golf including a wonderful essay about St. Andrews and links golf as well as one about his ball retriever, the Orange Trapper, and lacrosse where after winning 6 national championships with Princeton, coach Bill Tierney decamped in 2009 for Denver to start an entirely new dynasty. The second section of The Patch comprises 50 ‘patches’ of great variety. In a paragraph or two or in one to ten pages, they touch upon famous people in sports and the movies (Arthur Ashe, Bill Bradley, Sophia Loren, Cary Grant, William Randolph Hearst, Richard Burton, Jenny Lind and others), fascinating places (the basement of the Fed in NYC where more gold is stored than anywhere in the world, International Fragrances and Flavors’ lab, his childhood camp in Vermont, Burning Tree Country Club outside of D.C.), and interesting facts (I learned that a ‘conch’ is a concrete roller that is essential in the manufacture of chocolate). McPhee is the master of the brilliant observation and sentence, e.g. “His handsome face….has a frightened look, as of a mantis who has lost faith in the efficacy of prayer.” This book is full of such fine, often funny and always interesting prose. As the blurb on the back cover observes, “McPhee has built a career on small detonations of knowledge.” Perfect description. I’ve read much of his work, probably 10 or so books, and his Coming into the Country is prominently displayed on my Ideal Bookshelf logo. I’m now collecting the rest of his books from used book store visits and plan to read the entire ouevre over the coming year. Can’t wait!