By John McPhee
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24, 256 pages
John McPhee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Princeton University professor — and a lousy driver. In the opening pages of “Uncommon Carriers,” his new book about freight transportation, he acknowledges that his car has a “tendency to ignore stop signs.” He once racked up enough violations that the New Jersey Driver Improvement Program offered him admission, he writes, “on the following voluntary basis: enroll or lose your license.”
In poking fun at his own driving, Mr. McPhee acknowledges just how outclassed he is by the characters in his book. “Uncommon Carriers” chronicles the author’s journeys alongside the operators of a 65-foot chemical tanker, a towboat that pushes a string of barges more than 1,000 feet long, and a mile-and-a-half-long coal train.
As he crosses the country by road, water and rail, he not only explains the infrastructure that keeps our economy humming; he pays homage to those who skillfully operate the large machines. Thankfully, he never takes the controls.
Mr. McPhee manages to make sections of a book about freight as compelling as a novel, which is no surprise. He has made a career of plumbing prosaic subjects — shad, oranges, New Jersey’s Pine Barrens — and revealing just how interesting they are.
He has a reputation for asking sources the same simple questions over and over again, leading some to think him dim-witted. Such digging gives him the raw material needed to make his nonfiction read like literature. (At Princeton, he teaches a course called “The Literature of Fact.”)
Mr. McPhee is also a staff writer at the New Yorker, and most of the seven stories that comprise “Uncommon Carriers” initially appeared in that magazine.
The book’s first chapter recounts the author’s ride from Georgia to Washington state with Don Ainsworth, the self-employed owner of a chemical tanker. The story comes alive in the details. Some are straightforward: Mr. Ainsworth hauls weed killers, paint thinners, and defoaming agents. Others are entertaining: Hard liquor is a class three hazardous material and, depending on its proof, is either combustible or flammable (Glenlivet is combustible; Beefeater is flammable).
And some details reveal who Mr. Ainsworth is. He thinks the Wall Street Journal (he calls it the “Walleye”) is the world’s best-written paper. His 14-inch-high boots were custom-made from the hide of a water buffalo by an El Paso bootmaker. If he chooses the right gear as he descends the Cascade or Rocky or Appalachian mountains, he can avoid using his brakes and extend their life.
Mr. Ainsworth is off his game in Oregon, however. “On a grade at Hot Lake … he tried fifteenth gear, and his foot had to graze the pedal,” Mr. McPhee writes. “He seemed annoyed at himself, like a professional golfer who had chosen the wrong club.”
The personalities in Mr. McPhee’s work drive the narrative and help illuminate the topic at hand. In this book, Tom Armstrong, the captain of the towboat the author rides on the Illinois River (between Chicago and the Mississippi River), especially leaps off the page. The captain is a Marlboro-smoking Kentuckian with 20/13 vision and a “precise, navigational” mustache. “Towboating — it grows on you like a wart,” he says.
As they watch deckhands tighten wires that connect the towboat to the barges, Mr. Armstrong tells Mr. McPhee that the author would also be winding wires if not for his fancy education. A deckhand named Rick Walker joins the taunting. “Why don’t you pick up a broom and do something useful,” he tells Mr. McPhee, who stands around with notebook in hand.
The author may not be able to guide a towboat through the “Pekin wiggles,” the most difficult stretch of the Illinois River. But he does have a way with words. As he rides a coal train near the divide between the Big Blue and Little Blue rivers in Kansas, he describes the scenery:
“Overnight, heavy ground fog had frozen in the trees, had frozen on every weed, wire and bush … From horizon to horizon, the raking light of the sun shot forth through the ice. Fields were confectionary with thin snow. Our eyes were 15 feet above the tracks and more than that above the surrounding country. We got up to 40 miles per hour ascending the grade.”
In another story, he explains how lobsters shipped by Clearwater Seafoods get to their destinations. Because of the stress of travel, lobsters begin to lose weight and can only be transported so far before they need to recuperate. That’s why Clearwater has established a lobster reservoir in the UPS shipping hub in Louisville, Ky., where the creatures can “float” for up to two weeks before resuming their journeys.
In the Louisville hub, a labyrinth of packages, labels, scanners, conveyer belts and sleep-deprived college students, Mr. McPhee uncovers a few other noteworthy tales. For instance, Toshiba has outsourced the maintenance of its computers to UPS. Any broken computer that a consumer sends to Toshiba is repaired by a UPS employee in Louisville.
For all its merits, however, “Uncommon Carriers” suffers from several forgettable stories. Mr. McPhee travels to Port Revel, a pond in Dauphine, France, and writes about a ship-handling course that uses scaled models about 40-feet long. The idea of the course is interesting but seems like an aside to the rest of the book.
In another weak piece, Mr. McPhee retraces the 1839 trip that Henry Thoreau and his brother John made along the rivers between Concord, Mass. and Hooksett, N.H. Henry later wrote his first book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” about the experience.
The Thoreau brothers rode a homemade skiff; Mr. McPhee’s craft of choice is a 16-foot Old Town canoe. He travels the first day with an old college roommate, Dick Kazmaier (winner of the 1951 Heisman Trophy as the nation’s best college football player), and another four days with his son-in-law.
Mr. McPhee writes that Thoreau “had the courage to digress.” Mr. McPhee apparently musters up that same courage in this chapter. The question is: What does Thoreau have to do with freight?
There seems to be an answer that looms tantalizingly close but remains out of reach. Something about how transportation has changed in the last 150 years, or about how it can put us in touch with nature. But Mr. McPhee never lets enough of his intent rise to the surface.
The author leaves a few other threads dangling. After the coal train deposits its load at Plant Scherer, the largest coal-fired power plant in the Western Hemisphere, one of the plant’s mechanical engineers discusses the financial benefits of switching to nuclear power. Nevertheless, he reveals that the coal plant has plans to expand. The story never explains why.
Still, “Uncommon Carriers” is an impressive work. As Mr. McPhee piles detail upon detail, we begin to learn not just about freight but about our country. Writes the author: “The hum of a truck stop in the dead of night is one of the sonic emblems of America, right up there with the bombs in the air, the rutilant rockets, and the stern impassioned stress. You have not heard the sound of creature comfort until you have heard hundreds of huddled trucks idling through the night.”