Since 1965, when he became a staff writer for The New Yorker, McPhee has published, on average, a book every 18 months; he is now up to 28. In Silk Parachute, published last year and now out in paperback, the 80-year-old author seems, in his usual quiet and self-deprecating way, to have noticed the fact of his age. In any case, he reveals more of himself in this essay collection than he ever has before. The title comes from a very short preface about McPhee's own childhood, his mother, and a favored toy: a black rubber ball, bought at LaGuardia airport in the 1930s, containing a silk parachute. "If you threw it high into the air, the string unwound and the parachute blossomed," McPhee explains. "If you sent it up with a tennis racquet, you could put it into the clouds. Not until the development of the multi-megabyte hard disk would the world ever know such a fabulous toy."
Over the course of the eight fairly recent articles that make up the collection, McPhee investigates the usual eclectic mix of topics: English chalk, lacrosse, large-format photography and so on. But for the first time, the characters through which he introduces these topics are McPhee himself, members of his immediately family, and a couple of longtime personal friends. Progressing through the book, you realize that McPhee is finally sharing his own life, the life of a man whose marvelous talent has always been his fabulous toy. "Folded just so, the parachute never failed," he writes in the preface. "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."