Reviewed by Jane Tompkins
I came across this book in a secondhand bookstore where I’d gone to look for something else—a book they didn’t have. As with many things of this nature, the accidental find turned out to be a gem. Although the subject of the book—McPhee’s encounters with various forms of freight transportation—seems relentlessly material, mechanical, and logistical, one is in the presence here of a clarity of vision and precision of focus that lift the objects of his description to a plane of hyper-reality and into the realm of the numinous.
McPhee is now 88, and most, perhaps all, of his recent publications have been collections of older material. Uncommon Carriers, originally published in 2006, consists of essays most of which had been published in the The New Yorker. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that this book—like his others—opens up world after world that one had known nothing about, worlds that, in some cases, are nothing short of miraculous.
McPhee has perfected the art of non-fiction to the point where you feel in the presence of the marvelous, whether he’s talking about the transportation of billions of pounds of coal or tying his own shoe. Simply by sticking to the facts, he can create the feeling that you and he share x-ray vision, can understand the deep significance of things, value their exceptional qualities, appreciate their greatness. This is due partly to the fixity of his gaze on what is in front of him and to his painstakingly selected and pruned language. But it is due also to something else, an attitude of awe that invests the objects he looks upon with wonder. To produce this effect requires the utmost skill.
With a sly mixture of statistics, facts, and startling asides, McPhee turns the most resistant material into a series of amazing realizations on the reader’s part. His chapter on coal trains begins with his boarding a train that is seven thousand four hundred and eighty-five feet long (about a mile and a half), longer than five (extinct) Florida East Coast Tamiami Champions placed one after the other. The train has five diesel-electric locomotives, and, empty, weighs three thousand tons. The wind can slow such a train from fifty-five miles an hour down to eighteen; in the Laramie Mountains it can lift the train off the track.
Paul and Scott, the conductor and engineer McPhee travels with, are from North Platte, Nebraska. Their run goes from North Platte to Maryville, Kansas, and back. “They make the run at least ninety times a year . . . . They know every siding, every crossing, every movable-point frog [McPhee’s occasional use of unexplained technical jargon always seems to lend authenticity], every rising and descending grade. . . . Train crews work locally on memorized track and terrain. To get a coal train from, say, northeast Wyoming to central Georgia [this happens all the time] you would need at least eleven different crews.” We’re being hit with facts, statistics, pieces of information from hither and yon, e.g., thanks to the Clean Air Act (1970) coal mining has shifted from Pennsylvania and Ohio to Wyoming, where the coal is five time less damaging to the environment. But wait. McPhee is only getting started. Soon he’ll up the OOH factor by a lot.
It would take too long to quote the passages where his techniques achieve their greatest effect, but they are wondrous. And not for the skill alone. This book forces one to recognize the enormous ingenuity, ambition, and mind-boggling accomplishments of America’s engineers. For example, the chapter titled “Out in the Sort” describes the hub in Louisville Airport where UPS sorts its packages, a gigantic seventy-five foot, windowless warehouse surrounded by planes. A walk around the hub’s exterior would be five miles long. “The hub sorts a million packages a day, for the most part between 11 pm and 4 am. . . . [A] living lobster, checked in, goes off on a wild uphill and downhill looping circuitous ride and in eight or ten minutes comes out at the right plane. It has travelled at least two miles inside the hub.” To supply itself with the type of personnel it needs, the UPS has funded a nearby college where students can get an education while working the night shift.
After reading Uncommon Carriers I concluded that the true geniuses of this country are the people who created the monstrous vehicles, facilities, and systems of organization that move the things we depend on from one place to another. And although most of these systems are now operated by computer, these days, when millions of us do nothing but sit at computers, it’s easy to forget about the physical strength and know-how that produced these behemoths and keeps them going, turning the right screw, replacing the faulty part, operating the giant crane, driving the locomotive, driving the eighteen-wheeler, steering the ship to port. Many of these jobs are dangerous, requiring knowledge, experience, split-second timing, and intense concentration.
We’re taught to admire literature, paintings, films, works of philosophy and history, to see greatness in political leadership, business acumen, scientific research, and athletic performance, but the dazzling achievements of engineering that allow us to enjoy our present lifestyle are largely invisible or taken for granted, or both. McPhee represents this astonishing, hidden world with such immediacy that one is humbled by it. Reading his book is a pleasure and a revelation.~