An “album quilt,” an artful assortment of nonfiction writings by John McPhee that have not previously appeared in any book
The Patch is the seventh collection of essays by the nonfiction master, all published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It is divided into two parts.
Part 1, “The Sporting Scene,” consists of pieces on fishing, football, golf, and lacrosse—from fly casting for chain pickerel in fall in New Hampshire to walking the linksland of St. Andrews at an Open Championship. Part 2, called “An Album Quilt,” is a montage of fragments of varying length from pieces done across the years that have never appeared in book form—occasional pieces, memorial pieces, reflections, reminiscences, and short items in various magazines including The New Yorker. They range from a visit to the Hershey chocolate factory to encounters with Oscar Hammerstein, Joan Baez, and Mount Denali.
Emphatically, the author’s purpose was not merely to preserve things but to choose passages that might entertain contemporary readers. Starting with 250,000 words, he gradually threw out 75 percent of them, and randomly assembled the remaining fragments into “an album quilt.” Among other things, The Patch is a covert memoir.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
With this remarkable nonfiction anthology, John McPhee has also put a fresh twist on the autobiography, telling his own story through others’ experiences. The journalist’s meticulously detailed pieces profile various idols and idylls of midcentury America—pickerel fishing and Princeton football, Time magazine and Oscar Hammerstein—but the real subject is McPhee himself and the art of noticing. In his portrait of Cary Grant, McPhee celebrates the actor’s “attention to minutiae,” the way his personal style flows out of his fussy concern with the small stuff. How can you resist a writer who looks at Cary Grant and sees a little of himself?
The latest collection from McPhee (Draft No. 4), a New Yorker staff writer, provides a bountiful cornucopia of insightful essays that display the wide range of his interests and tastes. The title essay begins as a characteristically detailed and observant account of fishing for chain pickerel in a New Hampshire lake before becoming a poignant reminiscence of communicating with his stroke-debilitated father via their shared fondness for fishing. In the other selections grouped under the heading "The Sporting Scene," McPhee riffs on his interest in professional golf, college lacrosse, and even bear sighting at his home in New Jersey. The bulk of the book is composed of "An Album Quilt," a patchwork miscellany of excerpts from never-before-collected, and in some cases unpublished, pieces each of which could have become a full essay or book on its own that hopscotches from a visit to the gold-stacked vaults of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to an aromatic traipse across the floor of a Hershey chocolate factory. McPhee delights in cracking open subjects, both ordinary and esoteric, and making them accessible to the layperson in works that testify to his virtuosity as one of the greatest living American essayists.