by John McPhee
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 248 pages, $24
Reviewed by Steve Weinberg
The business of America is business, and when author John McPhee writes about business, he does it unlike anybody else.
Uncommon Carriers in the 27th book by McPhee, otherwise best known for his nonfiction features in The New Yorker magazine.
This latest book has a great deal in common with McPhee’s previous books: The information gathering is painstaking, the writing is dense but often memorable and sometimes downright compelling, and the title often fails to illuminate the precise topic.
For example, take three of my favorite McPhee books. If you are unfamiliar with them, try to guess the subject matter from the titles: Coming Into the Country, Levels of the Game and A Sense of Where You Are.
Give up? The first is about Alaska. The second is about two tennis players and a match that pits them against each other. The third is about a college basketball star-scholar, who later became a U.S. senator.
Uncommon Carriers is about modern-day transportation. The title is a play on the phrase “common carriers,” which indicates businesses that are supposed to haul all paying passengers and freight. Most of the journalism in the book is of the participant-observation nature. In separate chapters, McPhee rides in the cab of an 18-wheel chemical tanker truck, on a tow guiding 15 barges filled with merchandise as it navigates the Illinois River, and in the locomotive of a coal train. Not so actively traveling in another chapter, McPhee hangs around a United Parcel Service facility that moves fresh lobsters, bull semen and all sorts of additional items by truck and by airplane.
Uncommon Carriers, like most of McPhee’s books, is not recommended for readers who like action/adventure genres. The level of detail is enthralling for readers who are already interested in the topic at hand or who are open enough to a liberal education that any topic holds possibilities. Some readers are almost certain to find the level of detail mind numbing. I have thought, both while reading past books and while absorbing Uncommon Carriers, that the author probably appeals to readers who double as fans of baseball. The writing follows a relatively slow pace, including a format undetermined by the number of timeouts or the number of minutes remaining on the play clock.
The insights about each aspect of the transportation business are often fascinating and nearly endless because of McPhee’s legendary curiosity. As the linked barge transporting McPhee, corn and Coca-Cola passes another carrying asphalt, McPhee imparts the information that “Asphalt must be kept heated from the plant where it is made to the road where it is laid. So asphalt vessels carry diesel fuel to heat boilers which heat the asphalt all the way, including seasons when air temperatures are well below freezing.”
The insights into the humans whose lives McPhee enters via immersion journalism are frequently more or less “average” within their transportation segments. Yet McPhee stays away from the all-too-easy, and misleading, stereotypes. Sure, chemical tanker driver Don Ainsworth fits some stereotypes of over-the road truckers, and those stereotypes do not usually include cerebral pursuits. On the other hand, Ainsworth reads the Wall Street Journal religiously, enjoys literary novels and knows plenty about the countryside he drives through.
McPhee delves into the professional lives and personal lives of the transportation workers he rides with, captures their vernacular and appreciates the skills they exhibit to arrive at their destinations alive. His book is worth every minute of the ride.