How It Gets There From Here- With McPhee Riding Shotgun

We consume. We rarely think of how food or energy is created or how it gets to where we purchase it. We may see a truck, but we rarely think about large ships or the trains that deliver America’s new old favorite energy “alternative”—coal. I remember the C.B. craze and trucker-oriented movies and television shows of the late 70’s ( BJ and the Bear and Smokey and the Bandit), which piqued my curiosity about the daily life of a semi driver. And there have been times, like when I was applying for graduate school, when I’ve been stunned at the efficiency of U.P.S. and by my own trust in that well-oiled but unseen machine now known as “Brown.” A book that lets the reader share the ride with the transporters of our precious cargo could be engaging and enlightening. But Uncommon Carriers, John McPhee’s latest, is not: It lacks a cohesive narrative and singular voice.

Author of 27 books, including Looking for a Ship and Giving Good Weight, Mr. McPhee won a 1999 Pulitzer Prize for his book Annals of the Former World, a geological history of North America that relied on 20 years of research. Much of that work, like most of that in Uncommon Carriers, was first published in The New Yorker, where Mr. McPhee has been a writer since 1965. But Annals of the Former World included 20,000 new words and had a theme that ran through it like a narrative. The essays in Uncommon Carriers were mostly published in the past three years and have not been expanded; no bridges have been built between the chapters; no unifying theme has been established—except transport.

The consummate observer, Mr. McPhee rides along with the owner-driver of an 18-wheel hazmat-carrying truck across the U.S.; with skippers at a large ship-handling school in France; with large-scale towboaters on the Illinois River; and with colossal coal-train operators in Wyoming. He visits U.P.S. customers in Nova Scotia and U.P.S. sorters in Kentucky.

And he takes a canoe trip, which he documents in “Five Days on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” the weakest link in Uncommon Carriers. It has nothing to do with freight transportation, unless you consider the page or so devoted to discussing the canal that Henry David Thoreau and his brother John navigated. While in the other essays Mr. McPhee tags along with carriers, common or not, in this piece we follow him as he canoes the same river as the Thoreaus. It may be filled with subtle observations on how a geography can change, how it can become more wild in the face of modernity, but it hardly belongs in a book that purports to follow the author “out and about with people who work in freight transportation.”

He paddles his canoe, but otherwise Mr. McPhee avoids becoming the George Plimpton of freight carriers: He never tries his hand at any of the rigs he rides—and we can probably be grateful after reading how the men who have handled these craft for dozens of years are still humbled by changes in current, tight spots and smaller vehicles.

He draws the reader in with light-touch humor and a fondness for detail, like the finicky primping of a truck with reverse-osmosis rinse water, the hazardous-material rating of Glenlivet Scotch, the bad luck associated with saying the word lapin (“rabbit”) on a French boat or the persistent culture of hobos on coal trains. Here’s a straight-faced description of a riverside general store’s wares: “Spectacularly varied, crowded with goods, it is stocked with everything a towboater might need or find attractive—a video, for example, called ‘Oral Orgasms’ and subtitled ‘Carpet Munching Extravaganza.’ Close by ‘Oral Orgasms’ are Scientific American and a 20-gauge shotgun up for raffle.”

More often than not, he’s appealing to his primary audience—Upper East Side New Yorker readers—while distancing a wider readership. The French is not translated; allusions to his acquaintance with Joan Didion are meant to be either funny or quaint; and references to the defunct Third Avenue el train reinforce his New- York-back-in-the-day credentials.

It’s a shame, because there are times—especially in “Tight Assed River” and “Out in the Sort,” which begins with lobster catchers in Nova Scotia and moves into a behind-the-scenes look at U.P.S. headquarters in Kentucky—when Mr. McPhee weaves history and context into a full journey that speaks to every reader. These are the most journalistic, most rewarding chapters of the book. The language doesn’t swing between the forced argot of his subjects and that of privileged New Yorkers. These essays demonstrate the potential of the larger subject matter—and of John McPhee.

Twenty years ago, Mr. McPhee got a letter from a deckhand on an oil tanker. As he notes in an interview for NewYorker.com, the deckhand “started telling me about the dour fate of the U.S. Merchant Marine, how it was going down the tubes …. [I]f you came out on the ocean with us, you would meet some—what was his word?—outspoken characters whom you would like to sketch.” Thus began Mr. McPhee’s first article on freight—which is not included in this collection.

In a book of over 200 pages, a reader should get more depth, more connective tissue, than what an article—even a long New Yorker article—can offer. How do these freight cultures overlap or react when they meet each other? Do the men he follows see their livelihood as part of the larger American landscape—like the deckhand on the oil tanker? Unfortunately, Uncommon Carriers reminds me of what Don Ainsworth, the hazmat trucker at the center of two chapters, had to say about a Larry McMurtry book: “It’s a series of anecdotes loosely strung together.”

Heather Bourbeau has reported on economics and politics for The Economist, The Financial Times and Slate.