When you finish reading John McPhee’s splendid new collection of essays, Giving Good Weight (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $9.95), you will have learned only two personal things about him: He comes from New Jersey and has trouble sleeping at night. Although the absence of personal detail in writing that is decidedly casual, open, and chatty is certainly noticeable, it is not disturbing, because the “personal McPhee” seems not so much banished as wholly absorbed in the task at hand, which is passionate observation.
To give good weight means to be a little generous with customers who are buying produce from you. The title essay is about Greenmarkets in New York City, and how it might come to be, in the world as we know it, that people want to give and accept good weight. Farmers from places like Bergen County, New Jersey, come once a week to the Greenmarkets scattered around the city to sell the produce they grow directly to the people who cook and eat it.
“The farm trucks are parked on the sidewalks . . . Broad-canopied green, orange, purple, and red umbrellas shield produce from the sun … Anders Thueson, with a Magic Marker, is writing our prices on brown paper bags, taping them up as signs. ’Is plums spelled with a “b”?’ he asks.” McPhee worked for one of the farmers, selling peppers, making change, talking and listening and making lists. It is not an endless stream of kindness and generosity he notices, but an arrangement of conflict, mutual mistrust, and necessity, sometimes resolved in bursts of good will, but mainly just lived through and enjoyed. The farmers distrust other farmers (“Rich Hodgson. See him over there? He has the cleanest fingernails in New York State”), city people, the city itself; the customers distrust the farmers, each other, the pickpockets.
For McPhee, the pleasure lies in noticing the small, funny details of these interactions, and weaving them through the larger story – how the farmers manage to get a cash crop grown and sold, how such an anarchic business venture can thrive in a city dense with regulations, what the markets mean to the people buying and selling there. Besides distrust, there is often a sense of wonder, thanks, pleasure, crazy newness:
Woman says, “What is this stuff on these peaches?”
“It’s called fuzz.”
“It was on your peaches last week, too.”
“We don’t take it off. . .”
“Well, I never.”
“You never saw peach fuzz before? You’re kidding?”
“I don’t like that fuzz. It makes me itchy. How much are the tomatoes?”
Only one of the four other essays is as captivating as the first, and it, too, is long and has something to do with food. What is striking about the pieces, all originally published in the New Yorker over the last two years, is that McPhee can make us believe something we’ve always wanted to believe: Anything, if given proper and passionate attention, will be interesting. There is an essay here on a nuclear power plant off the shore of New Jersey that has not yet been built, a piece on two pinball champions who are journalists in “regular” life, and, a subject that has drawn him before, a canoe trip on a remote river in Maine. In each instance, McPhee conveys respect for the complexity of his subject, delight in the variety of experience the world has to offer, and pleasure in letting someone else know about it.
The final essay, “Brigade de Cuisine,” is the one about “Otto,” the chef, that set off such a furor when it was first printed as a New Yorker profile in February 1979. Otto (a pseudonym) is a “shy, com-pulsive, neurotic artist”; McPhee rates his work higher than the stuff turned out in the French food palaces of New York City. Otto and his wife run a small restaurant, the “sort of farmhouse-inn that is neither farm nor inn, in the region of New York City.” In many ways, the portrait of Otto is a revelation of all that McPhee most admires. Otto is stubborn, a workhorse, a perfectionist, tolerant of isolation, intolerant of regimentation, mediocrity, pretension. He is gifted, and driven, and consequently capable of great concentration, both mental and physical. He does work that could easily be considered insignificant, but he raises it to the level of art.
A customer tells McPhee that Otto’s restaurant realizes one of his fantasies: “The fantasy is that there exists a small restaurant in the sticks, with marvellous food, run by civilized, funny, delightful people who have read every book and seen every movie and become your good friends – and almost no one else knows about them.” I think that McPhee shares the customer’s fantasy (as do I) and so allows himself, sometimes, to become promoter rather than observer. It is a fantasy that plays to the small disappointments of modern urban life, and although it is possible to see McPhee as a naturalist who expands his repertoire occasionally, I think it is this area of unease that is his real and abiding territory.
Edward Hoagland is a writer who shares the territory with McPhee, and describes their endeavor this way: “By default, we are the ones the phone rings for, old enough to have known real cowboys and real woods.” This is quoted in the introduction to his new book, The Edward Hoagland Reader (Random House, $4.95), which is a fine sampler of the essayist’s 20-year career. There are 24 selections here, enough to get a plain idea of what matters to Hoagland, and why.
Like McPhee, Hoagland loves lists. He loves circuses, and breeds of animals, wilderness, and the contrasts between extremes. He loves fancy metaphors, and anything that lends a sense of grandeur and large scale to life. Unlike McPhee, he is very much present in his writing.
Hoagland’s essays on animals appeal most to me; here his voice seems least an-noyingly intrusive. Here he is on bears: “Bears, which stopped being primarily predatory some time ago, though they still have a predator’s sharp wits and mouth, appeal to a side of us that is lumbering, churlish and individual. We are touched by their anatomy because it resembles ours, by their piggishness and sleepiness and un-sociability with each other, by their very aversion to having anything to do with us except for eating our garbage.” This elegant and sophisticated anthropomorphism is not at all the simple reportage of a man who wants us to notice bears; the style is so pointed, so openly polemical that it is hard to resist.
In a piece called “Dogs, and the Tug of Life,” Hoagland proffers a shrewd and convincing analysis of the social standing of dogs. He thinks it is their relation to the predatory wolves that has allowed their domestication by humans. It is not simply his wonderful style that pleases here, but his ability to consider the predicament of animals without sentimentalizing them.
If Hoagland is a “naturalist,” and I think he is more so than McPhee, his attraction to wild environs is the attraction of an unhappy suburban kid to a world that in its asocial splendor can never disappoint or reject him. This world may be lonely, terrifying, enormously and casually hard, but it does not make him feel like an outsider. He lives his life between an apartment in New York City and various wilderness retreats,and his writing reflects the tensions inherent in any such life. The voice thatmakes itself familiar to us in these pieces isan angry, sometimes strident, conservativevoice, capable of expressing great compassion, alarming honesty, and toughness.And although not always generous,Hoagland does strike me as a writer whogives good weight.