Aug 20 2006

I want to be John McPhee

Uncommon carriersI think I wanna be John McPhee.  Talk about the perfect job! The guy just wanders around the country, stopping now and then to write about whatever catches his interest—and his interest is caught by all sorts of weird stuff: why people go off to die in Alaska. Where oranges come from. The life of the shad fish.  The origins and history of the cattle brand. And most recently, Uncommon Carriers, his homage to the freight industry—a riveting subject if ever there was one.

But therein lies McPhee’s talent.  He must be one of the most inquisitive and enthusiastic creatures on the planet, and his enthusiasm spills all over his subject and basically gets itself all over his readers.  I have been a fan of McPhee from way on back and I still find myself drenched with his innate excitement whenever I open one of his books. Enthusiasm is contagious.

When McPhee writes about the freight industry, he isn’t talking about the logistics behind UPS, or the hassles suffered by passengers at the mercy of an out-gunned airline industry.  He is talking about the really big stuff: Trucks with at least 18 wheels. People who captain ocean-going tankers that take more than an hour to come to a full stop. Pilots who fly the massive cargo planes over oceans and that will never show an in-flight movie.  He rides on freight trains that race across the plains at ninety miles an hour, and river barges that race up rivers at about four knots. Wherever there is a way to move a large amount of very heavy stuff a very long distance, he has poked his nose into it, much to the bemusement of the men and women who make their living on this unseen foundation of modern life.

Usually it takes a novel to get me interested in this stuff (in fact two of my favorite novels involved life on tankers: The Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith and Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg).  I can honestly say that I have never, not once, thought to be curious about all the colored placards on the tanker trucks I pass on the highway—except of course to give them a wide berth (because anyone who has ever scene a Hollywood movie knows that tanker trucks explode at the least provocation).

But thanks to McPhee’s insatiably curious nature, I now know that alcohol is considered a class 3 hazmat (hazardous material) and that the difference between Beefeater and Glenlivet is in its flashpoint—the first is flammable (will catch fire) and the latter is combustible (will explode with very little provocation)—that must be the stuff in all those tankers in the movies.

It is no accident that one thinks of various bestselling novels when reading Uncommon Carriers—John McPhee was a pioneer in the art of not making nonfiction boring. His very first book, A Sense of Where You Are (1965), issued in the new era of “literary nonfiction” by shamelessly using a novelist’s techniques with dialogue and description to bring his subject—the basketball player Bill Bradley—vividly to life.  McPhee has continued to write in this vein over the next forty-odd years and twenty-odd books, and he can claim the distinction of creating a whole new literary genre with hundreds of grateful followers including writers like Simon Winchester (Krakatoa), Sebastian Junger (Perfect Storm), Erik Larson (Devil in the White City) and Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit).

But not like John Krakauer (Into Thin Air) or Tony Horowitz (Confederates in the Attic)—McPhee has an old-school ethic of not injecting his own views into his topic. He still believes in the journalist’s creed “be objective” and he understands that there is a difference between empathy and sympathy.  As a result, his books remain refreshingly free of the proselytizing and frenetic diatribes that mar so much of the nonfiction that is published today. Even when McPhee is writing on emotional subjects—environmentalism, for example, or development, his first priority is always the people, not the cause.

Although it is about big subjects—big trucks, and very big boats—Uncommon Carriers is not a long book, especially for someone who has been working on it for at least eight years.  It is really more a series of vignettes or sketches, portraying some of the fascinating people McPhee has discovered as he routed around in umpteen docks and shipyards and truck stops, and some of the fascinating stuff they do. But the book lacks the scope of some of McPhee’s earlier works—lacks, perhaps, any underlying big question to be answered—such as the “what makes people leave it all behind and go off into the wilderness?” question that makes his book on Alaska, Coming Into the Country, so perennially seductive.  Perhaps, too, a man who has a fondness for geology and has written several books on the rise and fall of mountain ranges can’t help but see these trucks and trains as fragile and ephemeral motes skittering across the surface of the disinterested planet.  People who write about geology have a different idea about the concept of “long-term” or “permanent”.

But although he is not really asking why men move mountains (of stuff, all over the place), there is plenty to hold our attention in how they do it. McPhee scatters facts like pearls across his pages—the reader can’t help but stop to pick them up. By the end of the book the reader is possessed of all sorts of extraneous trivia that could really be annoying at parties. (Does one really need to know that the tanks of cement trucks are cleaned with high-pressure sugar water?) But more importantly, they have learned enough about the freight industry that the next time they pull into a gas station and see it’s tanks being filled by some shiny round tanker sprouting hoses and warning signs, they will know what exactly what they are looking at.

And knowing what you are looking at makes the world a more interesting, more fun place to live. That is the job of a writer, after all–to help us to see the weird and wonderful world right in front of our eyes. In this, McPhee never fails.

Aug 5 2006

Literary Expeditions

The Nobel-prize winning author Naguib Mahfouz neither knows nor cares anything about it, but he owes his presence on my library shelves to a little-known British zookeeper with a penchant for exaggeration and a wicked sense of humor.  When I was ten years old, my mother decided it was time that I made the transition from reading books written for children to those written for adults.  So she handed me a copy of a book called My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.

My Family and Other AnimalsFor those of you who have been suffering from the absence of this funny little memoir in your lives, My Family and Other Animals is an account of the five years the rather eccentric Durrell family lived on the Greek island of Corfu.  Gerry Durrell was, at the time, also only ten and completely obsessed with animals—an enthusiasm he never out grew and which explains his future occupation as a zoo keeper and animal collector.    Durrell wrote the book to finance one of his collecting expeditions, and as such he had intended it to be a casual account of the fauna of the island. A ten-year-old boy’s memories of his first dog. His first turtle. His first pet gull. His first pet snake. His first pet scorpion.  But, as he states in an introduction he felt impelled to call “A Speech for the Defense”, “…I made a grave mistake by introducing my family into the book in the first few pages. Having got themselves on paper, they then proceeded to establish themselves and invite various friends to share the chapters. It was only with the greatest difficulty, and by exercising considerable cunning, that I managed to retain a few pages here and there which I could devote exclusively to animals.

Gerry Durrell has reason to thank his family’s impetuous commandeering of his memoir.  Their eccentricities and sheer outrageousness turned a nostalgic account into a fine slapstick comedy, and the book became an immediate bestseller and has remained in print for the last 50 years. But what is significant in terms of Naguib Mahfouz’s future book sales is that Gerry Durrell’s oldest brother was named Larry.  And Lawrence Durrell is now known as one of Britain’s greatest novelists.

At the time of Gerry’s hilarious account, “Larry” was only twenty-three, so one can perhaps excuse him for being the self-centered, self-important, and self-indulgent artiste that his younger brother says he was.  Even at the time he was a writer, which in ten-year-old Gerry’s mind meant something vague to do with typewriters and the consumption of large quantities of home-made Greek wine.

Sadly, my mother made me return my copy of My Family and Other Animals to the library so other people could have a chance to enjoy it. I made a beeline for the “D’s” on the shelf, and that is how I found Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet.

This is how I found most of the books I read when I was young: One book would naturally lead to another, which would lead to yet another in a meandering sort of progression; a literary expedition.

JustineNow, it could be argued that while a humorous story of a boy growing up in Greece with a bunch of animals might be appropriate reading for a ten year old girl, the rather more sophisticated Alexandrian Quartet most certainly was not.  But my mother was never one to censor my reading; trusting, perhaps, in that supreme self-centeredness of children that allows them to blithely skip over anything that does not pertain directly to them. She was right to do so, because while the ten year old me disregarded the heavy sensuality of the books, the allusions to sex in all shades of its perversions, I was very much captivated by the city of Alexandria; it was the first time I understood that a city—a place—could be a character itself in a book.  I was also mesmerized by the way the stories were told; conversationally and poetically, braided, with people and events constantly shifting before the reader’s eyes as the point of view changed in the novels.  I had never realized stories could be told like that. It was the first time I consciously thought that I would like to be a writer.

The four books of the Alexandrian Quartet—Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea—became one of the way-stations of my bookish explorations.  Because of Lawrence Durrell, I went looking for works by D.H. Lawrence and C.P. Cavafy—both writers whose work are tantalizingly flirted with in the Quartet.  I’ll leave it to another time to talk about where DH Lawrence led me—that is another journey entirely.  But Constantine P. Cavafy, who Durrell called “the poet of the city”, was a revelation. For one thing, his was the first poetry I read that didn’t date back to the time of Robert Frost. His verses preserve an Alexandria of a bygone era—rich, romantic, decadent, tragic:

C.P. Cavafy: Collected PoemsIn Harbor

A young man, twenty eight years old, on a vessel from Tenos,
Emes arrived at this Syrian harbor
with the intention of learning the perfume trade.
But during the voyage he was taken ill. And as soon
as he disembarked, he died. His burial, the poorest,
took place here. A few hours before he died,

he whispered something about “home,” about “very old parents.”
But who these were nobody knew,
nor which his homeland in the vast panhellenic world.
Better so. For thus, although
he lies dead in this harbor,
his parents will always hope he is alive.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1918)

Cavafy was born and died in Alexandria. He was a Greek, and the central, luminous star of the pre-war city’s intelligentsia.  I think I was in love with the idea of it as much as the verse.  I scribbled little snatches of his poems in a journal throughout high school, and started to comb used bookstores for books about Egypt.  When I was let loose in Boston, my first month away from home for college, almost the first thing I did after I dumped my suitcase in my dorm room was find the college bookstore and start wandering around, looking at all the texts.

MiramarSomebody that semester must have been teaching Middle Eastern Studies because there was an entire isle of literature from the area—Greek, Turkish, and Arabic. And there, on a shelf with the cryptic label “EGP 405” was not only Cavafy, but, at last, a hitherto unknown writer named Mahfouz.  I bought a slim little novel called Miramar because it was set in Alexandria, and read it in about two hours.  I came back, decided I’d rather have books than a new pair of sneakers, and spent the rest of my money on Midaq Alley and Children of GebelawiMidaq Alley remains one of my favorites, possibly because it does for Cairo what Durrell and Cavafy have done for Alexandria—made it breathe, given it life.

In 1988 I was hired by a bookstore in Cambridge and Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I was the only one in the store who had read or even heard of him (I think that’s what got me the job).  To this day, I still feel compelled to go back to his early novels to capture and understand some of the Arab feeling in the perennial conflict that besets the Middle East. I’ve read the writers that he claimed influenced him (he doesn’t mention Cavafy specifically, but he must have known of him), and those that claim him as an influence. He may be the “father” of the modern Arab novel, but for me he is more of an ambassador, or a guide.

This little reading expedition has one final scene; a brick thrown through the window of my Cambridge bookshop in 1989.  Mahfouz’s most controversial book was Children of Gebelawi, an allegorical tale in which women are depicted as strong and independent, and the Prophet Muhammad does not come across as especially holy.  It raised an outcry among Muslims in Egypt, and there were calls for the book to be banned and the author to be arrested for blasphemy and obscenity.  A leading Egyptian theologian, Omar Abdul-Rahman, went so far as to issue a “fatwa” against Mahfouz in 1959.  The author has survived one attempt on his life and lives to this day under armed guard.

Three decades later another Muslim writer had a fatwa issued against him: Salman Rushdie, for his novel The Satanic Verses. Abdul-Rahman (soon to be arrested for conspiracy in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993) claimed that had Mahfouz been properly punished for his blasphemy thirty years earlier, Rushdie would never have dared publish his novel. Which means we would not, to show our support for the writer, have put Satanic Verses in the window of our shop. And presumably, no one would have become so offended they felt compelled to hurl a brick through the window in response.

The scattered broken glass, the tumbled, bent books, the dirty red brick and scratches it made on the old floor was another “first” for me: my first and best lesson in how literature has real and physical consequences in our lives.