"Anything John McPhee is interested in, I'm interested in," I heard someone say recently. McPhee is a man who has written a whole book (Oranges) about oranges. He also has written two of the best books—Levels of the Game, about Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, and A Sense of Where You Are, about Bill Bradley—ever done on sports figures. Now Farrar, Straus and Giroux has issued a collection of his shorter magazine pieces (Pieces of the Frame, $10), most of which were written for The New Yorker and all of which are about sports, games or outdoor matters except one, and that is about whiskey. McPhee reports that the key ingredient (the water) in the best of all Scotch whiskeys comes from "a hole in the ground," covered by a flagstone in an oat field. So whiskey is an outdoor matter, too.
The book starts casually, goes on quietly and seems to meander (or even to move without the ball, like Bradley). If this book has a bothersome characteristic it is that no one in it, including McPhee, ever seems to raise his voice. "ROWR!" I exclaimed at one point, borrowing an exclamation from Pogo. "If somebody would just get frantic once!"
But there is plenty of frenzy elsewhere in American letters and not much of McPhee's kind of control. It is a high pleasure to watch his moves, as smooth and sharp and deftly modulated as, say, Bob Cousy's in his prime. "The yolk of a turtle egg cooks readily to a soft, mushy yellow. The albumen, though, pops and bubbles and jumps around the pan, and will not congeal. No matter how blazing the heat beneath it may be, the white of the egg of the snapping turtle will not turn milky and set. It will jump like a frog and bounce and dance and skitter all over the pan until your patience snaps or the fire dies. So you give up trying to cook it. You swallow it hot and raw." McPhee captures things without forcing them to congeal.
He can throw away a phrase, though: an injured rooster is "hard of moving"; Rod Laver has "the forearm of a Dungeness crab." And his sense of ecology draws in people and their artifices as strange, tangy elements of nature. There is a great piece about a biologist who travels through Georgia picking up car-killed wildlife (some of it to cook and eat later) and lives in a house full of hungry animals to whom she tosses gerbils. There is also a long investigation of firewood. I'll bet McPhee could write a book about firewood. I would read it.