In his latest book, titled “The Patch” (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux), author and long-time New Yorker staff writer John McPhee has assembled a collection of his nonfiction work, none of which has previously appeared in book form.
One thing that sets “The Patch” apart from other anthologies of his work is its structure. Part I is devoted to the subject of sports — specifically fishing, football, golf, and lacrosse — while Part II is presented as “An Album Quilt,” a patch-work of McPhee’s pieces from various sources.
When considered as a whole, “The Patch” forms a cunningly constructed, touching, and sometimes playful stealth memoir.
First there’s the title McPhee chose for the collection, with its manifold meanings, ambiguous and multilayered, any or all of which may apply to a given piece in “The Patch.” A “patch” can simply be a patch of ground, or in the case of the title piece, a patch of lily pads. A patch can be one’s turf — a name that’s applied to many a detective chief inspector’s jurisdiction in countless British police procedurals — a repair, a badge of office, or, as with the patch-work of Part II of “The Patch,” a piece of a literary quilt.
Patches abound in the title work, a piece ostensibly about fishing. The author and his fishing companion and friend George Hackl have been working this patch for decades, and the object of their pursuit is the chain pickerel, a fish of little utility and ravenous appetite. Their fishing patch is a quarter mile of lily pads in Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire.
McPhee observes that each chain pickerel has its own patch among the lily pads as well, in which it patiently hovers, waiting for its prey and striking with remarkable speed and ferocity, then returning to its patch. He notes that if one were to return to the same spot a year later, that one would doubtless find the very same pickerel, marking time until its next victim swims within range.
McPhee’s connection to ritual, to this patch of lily pads, to friendship, and to the community of Princeton, the patch he calls home, is clear in many of the stories in Part II, but perhaps none is as clear and personal as in the title piece of Part I, where he appears to find meaning and a sense of belonging in enacting the ritual of fishing with his friend.
The connection is underscored by an incident in which the fishing and Princeton patches intersect, when he receives a phone call informing him of his father’s stroke while on his fishing trip. He recounts his time at his father’s bedside, telling the dying 89-year-old the tale of using the bamboo fishing rod that had once been his father’s — in a palpable sense the symbolic passing of a generational torch — to finally claim victory over a particularly elusive pickerel.
It’s a piece that may move a sensitive reader to tears, but not every essay in “The Patch” is rife with a son’s emotional connection to the paterfamilias. For example, in “Links and Bottle,” one could not ask for a better tutorial on the history and arcane ins and outs of links golf in Scotland, and the intrepid souls who brave the courses. And one could not hope for a more amiable and lucid guide than John McPhee.
His humorous pieces can be laugh-out-loud funny and equally self-revealing, like “The Orange Trapper,” a tale fashioned around, not a device designed to ensnare the commander-in-chief, but the author’s revelation of his obsession with retrieving lost golf balls.
To immerse oneself in the precision and humanity with which McPhee structures his tales is to experience the efforts of a consummate storyteller at work. To hazard a simile, McPhee’s construction of “The Patch” is like the construction of a serpentine fieldstone wall by a master stonemason. One admires the placement of the pieces — how could each stone have been better fitted? — then one’s admiration increases upon the realization that it began with a jumble of random fragments.
Yet it can sometimes be the odd fragments, the pieces that don’t quite seem to fit, that tantalize, like the fleeting reference to the uninhabited island in the title piece of “The Patch” that’s owned by the wife of his long-time fishing companion. Uninhabited? Owned only by his friend’s wife? It seems as though the story-behind-the-story might be as intriguing as any McPhee chose to include in “The Patch.”
The Patch, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, will be released Tuesday, November 13. Price: $26.
McPhee has no appearances scheduled in Princeton, but he will appear at the New York Public Library in a conversation with Paul Holdengraber on Monday, November 26, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $40. www.nypl.org.