Monday, July 27, 2009

Review: Uncommon Carriers

John McFee gets around, but not nearly as much as the subject of his book. Between the two covers of Uncommon Carriers, McFee crosses the country on trains, trucks, boats, and — except for fear of customs officials — probably would have UPS'ed himself if he had a big enough box for it.

Uncommon Carriers is a mish-mosh of essays, a series of nearly unrelated gonzo-journalism, in which McPhee rides along with a commercial shipper of one kind or another. Each method is a common one: nearly everyone has passed a mirror-bodied tanker truck on the freeway, or stopped for a mile-long train of coal-filled hoppers to cross the road. The only common thread between the stories, save for one Thoreau-themed canoe trip, is the transport of freight in our country. In fact, as far as commercialism goes, these stories are heavily American. The product moved starts as raw material at one point, and ends up a final product at another. McFee's adventures cover the ground in between.

Being a book of scattershot transportation articles does mean a degree of unevenness between the sections. The copyright page says that much of the book originally appeared in The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, which explains the lack of consistency. The boating parts have the strongest writing of the book; had he expanded just on the theme of river transportation, the book might have been better overall. The parts with the 18-wheeler that frame the book are probably the weakest, and the railroad sections, while interesting, spend more time on the mechanics of railroads than the human component of the train. As a work of literature, this ain't a classic, but it is excellent for a summer read, definitely a good "guy's book", full of big engines, American-made materials, just a touch of foul language, brief exposure to bare breasts, and each machine's operators fit into a "man's-man" category of their own.

Uncommon Carriers, by John McPhee
ISBN 0-374-28039-8
Published 2006, 248 pages
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giruox

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