Fishing, Golf, and Ping-Pong Champs in John McPhee’s ‘The Patch’

john mcphee the patch book
The Patch by John McPhee Courtesy of Amazon

Pulitzer winner John McPhee has spent his career covering subjects that don’t inherently seem like fodder for good, much less gripping, journalism: things like geology, oranges, shad. But he’s adept at making the esoteric seem essential and personal. The Patch, his latest collection of nonfiction essays, largely about angling and sports, is no exception.

In it, we learn that chain pickerel have teeth on their tongues; the Old Course’s putting greens are big enough to double as football fields; and, in a recent three-year period, 21 bears broke into New Jersey homes.

McPhee uses obscure facts such as these not for academic affectation but to arrive at personal territory. The titular story, for one, morphs from a straightforward fishing tale, to a physiological examination of pickerel, to a moving account of McPhee’s father’s death. Similarly, in “An Album Quilt”—a series of story fragments that comprises the second half of the book—McPhee writes about Ping-Pong champions and William Randolph Hearst’s longtime mistress, but also about the first time he had a drink of whiskey, at age 10, and the summers he spent at camp in Vermont.

Ultimately, McPhee proves there’s transcendence in the trivial and, like a good drinking pal, comes off as generous, smart, and curious about life’s splendor, however small.

The book is available now in hardcover on Amazon.