Ahab in a Canoe

John McPhee has published his twelfth book. THE SURVIVAL OF THE BARK CANOE (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $7.95), more evidence that he is one of the country’s best . . . best what? I was about to say reporters, but the term includes too much: news doesn’t seem to
interest McPhee, and I doubt he’s ever “investigated” anything. He watches. He brings a reverence to observation. The title of his first book. A Sense of Where You Are, suggests an attribute of them all, an intense affection for the here and now. He can also be a sort of surreptitious essayist, letting the evidence state his case. His profile of David Brower, for example (Encounters with the Archdruid). turns into a complex discussion of the contrarieties of environmentalism.
The Survival of the Bark Canoe documents a bit of the life of a young man who has given himself to preserving the Indian craft of canoe-making. Nice subject for McPhee: the young man carves canoe thwarts the way McPhee writes, without apparent effort but with a lust for perfection.
The book takes a curious turn. Along with some others. McPhee and his friend travel by bark canoe through the Allagash lakes in Maine, and the voting man reveals perfectionism’s ugly side. He seizes control of the trip, forces his companions to paddle through storms and darkness, becomes an Ahab of his tiny boat. McPhee remains his unruffled self, but one senses an unexpressed tension: he must know well the urge to break out of the limits of one’s craft, and the dangers in doing so.
The only aspect of McPhee’s work that one can criticize is his circumspect caution; I can’t be alone among his fans in hoping that he’ll take larger risks.