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McPhee's 'Carriers' is transporting

Uncommon Carriers
By John McPhee
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 248 pp., $24

To read the studious John McPhee in this sensationalist age, when so many other literary journalists are shrieking from some self-aggrandizing edge, is to be reminded of what the genre should be -- artfully reported stories that illuminate who we are.

In ``Uncommon Carriers," McPhee's 27th book since 1965 , the Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker staff writer explores the world of freight transportation in America, the towboats, trains, trucks, and planes that roam the country, and the colorful characters at the wheel. It is a little-known subculture, despite the enormity, ubiquity, and necessity of its undertakings, making a journalistic inquiry all the more enticing.

McPhee reports from the cab of an 18-wheeler, hauling chemicals coast to coast, its iconoclastic driver looking for ``bears" -- police officers -- while commenting on everyone from Joan Didion to the Teamsters. He reports from the pilothouse of a towboat , the Billy Joe Boling, lacing 15 barges of iron, coke, and fertilizer up the slender Illinois River. The barges reach 1,000 feet ahead, with the shores at times only 6 feet to either side.

He reports from the floor of the sprawling United Parcel Service Worldport, a 4-million-square-foot distribution facility at the Louisville, Ky., International Airport that sorts a million packages a day. He reports from the locomotive of a mile-and-a-half-long coal train traveling from Wyoming to Georgia. He attends a school on a lake in France where tanker pilots practice maneuvers in scaled-down model ships. He paddles the Concord and Merrimack rivers, the same trip made in 1839 by Henry David Thoreau .

Along the way, McPhee breathes life into these experiences through his legendary eye and ear for detail, his talent for observation and description, and his sardonic wit. ``Don's father, Arthur Ainsworth, was born in Lancashire, and came to Canada, and then to western New York, near Rochester, after the Second World War," he writes of trucker Don Ainsworth. ``He became the editor-in-chief of Screw Machine Engineering, a magazine whose name a hyphen would have improved."

McPhee is most eloquent when he balances the technical and human in his stories; when, say, he weaves the arcane details of controlling a long train on varying grades with the personal details of a conductor's life. He strikes that balance in ``Tight-Assed River " and ``Coal Train ," while the other five pieces are at times a little dry. His occasional use of questions as transitions, cutesy alliteration, and hyperbolic humor also detract, as does his peculiar fascination with the pronunciation of names.

But such quibbles pale in the light of McPhee's selfless curiosity. After more than four decades of literary journalism, he still draws from its altruistic tenets, however passé others may consider them. He has chosen a fascinating, important subject -- how America works, each and every day, in ways we take for granted and should not. He has allowed that subject to speak for itself, through its people and places, continually finding magic in the ordinary. He has told our stories. And we are better for that.

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