By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

5. Silk Parachute, by John McPhee, pp. 164-227

Silk Parachute"Checkpoints," "Rip van Golfer," and "Nowheres"
"Checkpoints" is about the New Yorker's famous fact-checking operation. It's a pleasant celebration of the hard-working anonyms who do the tedious business of keeping the magazine's writers adhered to the truth. McPhee, who salts and peppers his articles with facts, must keep them on their toes, and even this article is full of gee-whizzery like: "The Manhattan Project ... required the '"immediate high amputation" of any human limb with a cut contaminated by plutonium.'" I did not know that.

It's also a piece with some attention to irony, as when a fact-checker called up an expert to check one of McPhee's geological assertions, and the expert "corrected" McPhee -- who turned out to be right. The expert misremembered. And once, the New Yorker referred to someone as "the late," only to receive a letter from the man, who was alive in a nursing home. So the magazine ran a correction, "doubling the error, because the reader died over the weekend while the magazine was being printed." 

Richard Sacks, the fact-checker in charge of McPhee's gob-stopper of an article on the Swiss army, which ran to some forty-thousand words, labored mightily, "starting on the telephone in the early morning and staying on the telephone until the end of the Swiss day." The result was near perfection: McPhee once complimented Sacks on the fact that he never received a letter complaining of an error in the article. "This fact did not check out with Richard. 'Oh, but there was one letter,' he said. 'Something about a German word, but the reader was wrong.'" 

But McPhee does a little bragging about his own accuracy, noting that he once had to fact-check his article -- "twelve thousand words about the history of an American fish," which the New Yorker had turned down, but which he was preparing for publication in a book. (Book publishers don't employ fact-checkers. As many authors know to their embarrassment. I prematurely killed off John Mills in my own book about the Oscars.) It took him three months.

"Rip van Golfer" is about golf. Obviously. A subject about which I have even less interest than I do about lacrosse. (Or the Swiss army, for that matter.)  The essay gets its title from McPhee's swearing off of golf at the age of twenty-four, but returning to it more than fifty years later to cover the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont. Again, for this non-golfer, the factoids and the occasional prose felicities are the article's saving graces. His account of why this particular golf course -- "in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, the first ever listed as a National Historic Landmark" -- is so maddening is beautifully done.

Followers of golf will appreciate his characterizations of such players as Tiger Woods. (The piece was written before Woods's fall from grace.) But I enjoyed his depictions of the pack of journalists with whom he was surrounded, and of the well-heeled crowd: "A high proportion are in good shape, with smooth muscular calves and flat stomach. A high proportion, too, have glistening foreheads and bulging corporations."

He also supplies us with a personal epiphany that occurred when he was a boy standing on the sidelines of a Princeton football game with his father, "whose practice was sports medicine before that term came into use":
One miserable November afternoon, soaked in a freezing rain when I was ten, I turned around and looked up at the press box. I saw people up there with typewriters, sitting dry under a roof in what I knew to be heated space. In that precise moment, I decided to become a writer.

The concluding essay in the book, "Nowheres," is about New Jersey, and it begins with a lovely tease: "That August I returned to the town in New Jersey where I had been born fifty years before. It looked much the same." Okay, maybe you can go home again, especially when the kicker is: "Any town would, after five weeks." In other words, 08540 is "the only Zip Code I've ever known. A Zip that doesn't flap. A Zip that can be tied down. A Zip with grommets at the end." Of course, he admits, he does have to get away from New Jersey occasionally, especially to "Alaska ... where, virtually under doctor's orders, I must go from time to time to recover from the sheer physiographic intensity of living in New Jersey."

He loves New Jersey in part because, naturally, of geology:
When you cross New Jersey, you cover four events: the violent upheaval of two sets of mountains several hundred million years apart; and, long after all that, the creation of the Atlantic Ocean; and, more recently, the laying on of the Coastal Plain by the trowel of the mason. Do they know that in Tennessee?
And he even loves something that used to freak me out when I traveled the New Jersey Turnpike:
New Jersey has had the genius to build across its narrow center the most concentrated transportation slot in the world -- with three or four railroads, seaports, highways, and an international airport all compacted in effect into a tube, a conduit, which has acquired through time an ugliness sufficient to stop a Gorgon in her tracks. Through this supersluice continuously pass hundreds of thousands of people from Nebraska, Kansas, Illinois, Iowa, Texas, Tennessee [editor's note: and Mississippi], holding their breath. They are shot like peas to New York. If New Jersey has a secret, that is it. 

Well, maybe what Faulkner said about my home state applies to McPhee's. "You couldn't understand it. ... You would have to be born there."

No comments:

Post a Comment