This evening I finished reading Coming into the Country, a John McPhee suite. It renders Alaska in prose that approach high art. Is there an English stylist who writes as cleanly? As I type this post, I am trying but failing to vary the length of my sentences in his singular way, as though the style I’ve savored isn’t merely elegant but utterly correct. Would that I am one day able.
Survey the nonfiction cannon, if you will. Its avant garde is dazzling: I defy anyone to argue that better words than Tom Wolfe’s could be found to capture the Merry Pranksters, or that any writer could top David Foster Wallace on the topic of a luxury cruise. Atop the heap, however, are a very few writers like John McPhee whose style is so understated, malleable and subservient to his larger purposes that he does not write badly on any subject. And Alaska’s stories are ones he is particularly suited to tell. The book is about America’s last frontier, its natural landscape, its politics, its native population, and the difficult balance between exploiting and conserving its bounty. I neglect to mention its people because all else is told through their stories. What characters!
You should read this book. It must be the kind of thing that sits on the unvarnished shelves of Gay Talese, William Langewiesche and Lawrence Weschler. “A grizzly, no slower than a racing horse, is about half again as fast as the fastest human being.” There, I’ve given you a taste.