Review: ‘The Patch,’ by John McPhee
“The Patch,” John McPhee’s new book, could only have been written by a journalist with decades of experience and an archivist’s disposition.
The author of modern classics on subjects as different as geology and tennis, McPhee started writing for Time magazine in the 1950s. He joined the New Yorker in the 1960s. All along, it seems, he saved every draft of every article he worked on. If a paragraph didn’t make it into print, McPhee stashed it away. Now, at 87, he’s raided his stockpile of stray sentences and used them to assemble an unusual, and at times fascinating, prose collage.
The first few entries in “The Patch” originally ran in the New Yorker in the 2010s; this amounts to about 90 pages. What follows — the bulk of the book, at about 150 pages — is, according to McPhee, a kind of prose “quilt.” All of the material in this section was cut from much older pieces. “I sifted about two hundred and fifty thousand words and got rid of seventy-five percent,” McPhee writes. He found 56 passages worth preserving, and arranged them “in an intentionally various, random, and subjective manner.”
Various indeed. In McPhee’s career-spanning miscellany, he marvels at Iceland’s glaciers, shadows Hershey’s chief chocolate taster and admires the roller-skating bears of the Moscow State Circus. He spends a lot of time looking underground — McPhee visits the basement chambers where the Federal Reserve hoards its gold and goes searching for a Nevada desert’s ancient deposits of “fossil water.” And because he started his career interviewing celebrities, he sizes up some of the 20th century’s grandest stars.
Cary Grant, we learn, could be a gruff micromanager. McPhee describes how the actor snubbed autograph seekers, griped that the Plaza Hotel skimped on his English muffin order and decided what co-star Doris Day would wear in 1962’s “That Touch of Mink.” Then there’s McPhee’s profile of a young Sophia Loren; the piece, from around 1960, features sentences that most reporters wouldn’t write today. “Her body,” he observes, “is a mobile of miscellaneous fruits and melons, and her early career was largely a matter of putting them on display.”
McPhee’s brushes with fame started early. He recalls playing pickup football in the early 1940s near Princeton University: “The lawn was framed by a double row of sycamores, whose big unforgiving trunks marked our sidelines. We sometimes had an audience of one. … Albert Einstein, leonine and sockless, would stop for a while to watch the action. He did not cheer. He never said anything.”
McPhee also witnesses big shifts in media, technology and sports. He’s there in the newsroom when a New York Times reporter is asked to switch from a typewriter to a 32-pound portable computer. He’s there, too, at the dawn of the modern environmental movement, accompanying an activist on a Mojave Desert trek.
Although there are many lovely passages in “The Patch,” a handful are frustratingly short. A single paragraph on Peter O’Toole, sun-scorched and battered after shooting “Lawrence of Arabia,” is beautifully written — if only it weren’t so fleeting. But such is the nature of this project. McPhee, a journalistic pack rat, has shared the best of his archives, and the result is a valuable overview of a long, peripatetic career.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.