Sean Lovelace Recommends “Coming into the Country” by John McPhee

In the latest installment of our Recommended Reads series Professor Sean Lovelace recommends Coming into the Country by John McPhee.

Author John McPhee is a technician, from the micro to the macro. He is a meticulous architect, with a keen emphasis on structure, but he’s the type of designer that bends the boundaries, a Frank Lloyd Wright, even more a Zaha Hadid, or a Gehry. McPhee once wrote an entire book about oranges, using the fruit itself—from seeds to flesh to unraveling rind—as his structure. He later wrote an essay on Atlantic City; using a Monopoly board as his scaffolding (the streets and railroads of Monopoly are actually located in New Jersey). So I recommend the nonfiction text, Coming Into the Country, not only for its majestic subject (Alaska), but for its technical mastery.

McPhee divides Alaska into three sections, using geography as his structural cue. The first section is titled, “The Northern Tree Line,” and explores the truly wild (as in unpopulated by humans) rivers (McPhee is an avid canoeist and tends to find his way onto the water for most of his books) that meander below the Arctic Circle, the Brooks Range. The second section is “In Urban Alaska,” an examination of Anchorage, Juneau, and all of the nasty, political machinations behind the sudden influence of oil, oil money, and a 1974 debate on relocating the capital (It remains in Juneau, as we know). The final section, “In the Bush,” conjures up the mythical Alaska, the Yukon, gold fever, sled dogs, Eskimos, an Alaska we are supposed to recognize (though, of course, we know little to nothing).

Good technique serves a purpose. A chef might have excellent knife skills, yet what does it matter if the food tastes badly? McPhee’s structure always serves its end. The geography of Alaska elicits the themes of the “country.” (Yes, it is a state, but, believe me, it’s a country to its own.) The section on the Brooks Range underlines that 99% of Alaskans don’t interact with the wilderness much at all. They can’t afford the air travel and air travel is pretty much the only game in town. The urban chapter crushes our mystique concerning Alaska as a special place. Government squabbling is human: petty, selfish, banal, and anything but romantic. The last section shows us the Yukon, yes, but what is the Yukon? Not Jack London. The Yukon is three things: 1. A rough group of society’s outsiders who want to be left entirely alone. 2. Native Americans, often exploited. 3. The United States government, meddling relentlessly with the affairs of everyone. In a word, the Yukon is messy. McPhee’s structure divides Alaska into units, but these segments are thematic. Like any skillful artist, his form delivers its function.

In the micro, McPhee employs a great number of creative techniques. In the interest of brevity, I’ll mention two: crisp and vibrant figurative language, and listing.

Of salmon holding in the current: “Looking over the side of the canoe is like staring down into a sky full of zeppelins.” Later, “The water was waist deep, cold as a wine bucket.” And “The boat was lumpy, awkward, bulging—a kayak with elbows.” And of trees: “Most of the spruce in this country look like pipe cleaners. The better ones look like bottle washers.” The weather is described as “…a front as dank as an oyster.” And so on. As you can imagine, Alaska offers bountiful opportunities for such a perceptive eye, and McPhee seems to enjoy himself with his detail and descriptions, and why not?

Listing. What do the river people of the Yukon talk about? “…in loops without end about hunting, fishing, trapping, and dogs; knives, axes, the kerf-width of saws; mortises, tenons; steel-cut oats; oars, poles; sleds, toboggans; aluminum boats; trail sets, visuals, tracks on the pan; single trees, spreaders; the collar of stoves; what sort of pups a certain bitch might throw; shelter, clothing, death, and marten bait (grouse wings versus salmon skins versus strawberry jam); and as the talk curved through its long ellipses it turned and returned, as always, to the Yukon, to every gravel bar, rock, rip, eddy, and bend—free or under ice.” These lists go on, throughout. But look at Alaska. Look at how things (like ice) accumulate. Look at what people bring and take away. The lists are appropriate to the setting.

I could go on (and on), but hopefully my point is made. Sure, Coming into the Country is about Alaska in a certain time (the 1970s), and you’ll learn all you want to know about its flora, fauna, and people, steadily, intricately; but this book is also a technical manual on writing. McPhee has the eye of a geologist, a botanist, a biologist, most certainly a sociologist, but, in the end, he is an adroit expert of the word.

 

McPhee, John. Coming into the Country. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991. Print.

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