John McPhee’s ‘Silk Parachute’ is charming but slight

John McPhee is the New Yorker magazine’s resident genius, a writer whose offbeat erudition, inexhaustible curiosity and flair for essay seems matched only in the 19th century by someone like Emerson, and in the 20th and early 21st by his contemporary Edward Hoagland. His works about geology, notably “Annals of the Former World,” and his grand epic of Alaska, written in the late ’60s, “Coming Into the Country,” are American classics.

McPhee’s 28 books of essays run the gamut from the basketball acumen of Princeton’s Bill Bradley (Princeton is McPhee’s home) to the architecture of the naval orange to the architectonics of billion-year-old ocean floors. If anything, McPhee’s fluid, literate, slyly funny and ultimately humane concourse with the English language makes reading his nonfiction explorations much like listening to great music. All of which renders “Silk Parachute,” while charming and witty, a disappointingly slight work, despite its heart-tugging personal recollections and occasional flashes of insight.

The title essay, “Silk Parachute,” first published in the New Yorker, is a lovely Valentine to McPhee’s 99-year-old mother, and a recollection rare and vivid as Proust’s sniff of cookie and tea. “When your mother is ninety-nine years old, you have so many memories of her that they tend to overlap, intermingle, and blur.” But one of the memories that does not blur for McPhee is one of his mother’s gifts, a tiny toy ball attached to a silk parachute. You threw the ball into the air and the parachute drifted gently down — again and again.

“Always it floated back to you — silkily, beautifully — to start over and float back again. Even if you abused it, whacked it really hard — gracefully, lightly, it floated back to you.”

Some of these essays recall McPhee’s best work. For example, the lengthy piece “On the Chalk” recounts a serious walking expedition the author took along the Downs country of southern England to the Maas Valley in the Netherlands and Champagne in northern France. This piece is as nuanced an account of geology, geography, wine-making and country life as anything McPhee has written. In another personal reminiscence, McPhee recounts his childhood experiences in the northern Vermont woods along Otter Creek, where he learned the art of canoeing, and the practice of surviving canoe rollovers. These two essays in particular extend the reader’s perception and engage the heart.

Elsewhere, McPhee is less successful. His long essay about the history and practice of lacrosse grinds slowly to a halt halfway through with the reader drowsing. A short piece of reportage about a recent United States Open Golf Championship at Oakmont, won by the Argentine Angel Cabrera, is funny, but fluff. “Life List,” a sometimes grisly and sometimes humorous look at the wild foods McPhee has downed during his travels, fails to engage. Or, perhaps, I’m one of those who think that eating Icelandic puffins is uncool.

At age 80, McPhee has earned his place in American letters. “Silk Parachute” is a beautifully made book, with rich, expensive paper, an artful and delicate dust jacket, and fine binding. Most of us would give our eyeteeth to produce something half its worth.