"THE PATCH"

(Far­rar, Straus and Giroux) A NOVEL BY JOHN MCPHEE

Sun.Star Cebu Weekend - - Book - Re­view: Rob Mer­rill

Eighty-seven and 33. That's the age of John McPhee and the num­ber of books he's writ­ten, count­ing his lat­est, "The Patch." One could for­give McPhee if he spent all his time in a ca­noe with a fish­ing rod when not en­joy­ing the com­pany of his 10 grand­chil­dren. But McPhee is a writer, ar­guably Amer­ica's great­est non­fic­tion es­say­ist ever, and if he can find a prac­ti­cal way to do it, one senses he'll pen some­thing from his cof­fin.

If he does, count me as one of the mil­lions who will read it.

"The Patch" is a slim book di­vided in two. The first part is a col­lec­tion of five es­says he dubs "The Sport­ing Scene" — sto­ries about fish­ing, foot­ball, golf, lacrosse and bears that all ap­peared over the years in The New Yorker. The sec­ond, which McPhee likens to an "al­bum quilt" he fas­tid­i­ously took the time to as­sem­ble from pre­vi­ously writ­ten work, con­sists of var­i­ous frag­ments of things from over the years that haven't yet been bound up in a book.

The stand­out in part one is the ti­tle es­say that first ran in 2010, which be­gins as a trib­ute to chain pick­erel, the "lone am­bush hunter" that can "ac­cel­er­ate like a bul­let" when prey swims past. By the end, this fish tale is re­ally about fa­ther­hood as McPhee's dad suf­fers a stroke in a Bal­ti­more County hos­pi­tal.

The sec­ond part, the "al­bum quilt," fea­tures writ­ing about ev­ery­thing from Os­car Ham­mer­stein to McPhee's first drink when he was 10 years old. ("One thing it wasn't was un­pleas­ant.") All are rich with de­tail and McPhee's di­rect style and trade­mark sense of hu­mor. "He is pre­dictably un­pre­dictable," writes McPhee in a re­mem­brance of the late ten­nis star Arthur Ashe. And in an ode to satirist Feli­cia Lam­port, com­ment­ing on where writ­ers write: "Lam­port tops them all with Elihu Linot, who al­ways wrote on the backs of women, start­ing at the neck and work­ing down. His ed­i­tor eloped with a man­u­script. There was no car­bon."

McPhee's cu­rios­ity is leg­endary and ev­i­dent through­out this vol­ume. There's a two-page trib­ute to ac­tress Sophia Loren ("Her hands are huge. Her fore­head is low. Her mouth is too large. And, mamma mia, she is ab­so­lutely gor­geous."), a pro­file of Bill Wag­ner, the chief taster at Her­shey's, em­pow­ered to "send ninety thou­sand pounds on its way to be eaten" and a laugh-out-loud list of Hol­ly­wood stars who have stage names ("Boris Karloff could not have fright­ened a soul as Wil­liam Henry Pratt").

Fans will rec­og­nize many of the sub­jects from the books McPhee has pub­lished — Bill Bradley, ge­ol­ogy, Alaska, to name a few — but they don't read as out­takes and are as fresh as when he first en­coun­tered them. Some con­text be­fore each patch of the quilt would have been wel­come, just a line or two de­tail­ing when and why he wrote it. But McPhee, famous for the unique ways he struc­tures his cre­ative process, has de­cided to present it as a quilt that can be en­joyed as in­di­vid­ual squares or an en­tire blan­ket, and re­ally, who are we to quib­ble with such a Master Seam­stress?

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