An associate of ours recently told us that John McPhee once stated that he lives in constant fear of being outed as a fraud. Since we share this uniquely writerly anxiety, we’ve been searching high and low for the exact quote in which one of non-fiction’s true masters reveals himself to be a mere mortal. Try as we might, alas, we’ve been unable to locate the confession. But though our hunt has so far failed to achieve its primary goal, it hasn’t been a total waste. The quest compelled us to read McPhee’s “The Search for Marvin Gardens”, his 1972 elegy for Atlantic City. The man’s descriptive prowess is a wonder to behold—few other writers can drag the reader’s eye across an entire urban landscape in a single passage:
Mediterranean and Baltic are the principal avenues of the ghetto. Dogs are everywhere. A pack f seven passes me. Block after block, there are three-story brick row houses. Whole segments of them are abandoned, a thousand broken windows. Some parts are intact, occupied. A mattress lies in the street, soaking in a pool of water. Wet stuffing is coming out of the mattress. A postman is having a rye and a beer in the Plantation Bar at nine-fifteen in the morning. I ask him idly if he knows where Marvin Gardens is. He does not. “HOOKED AND NEED HELP? CONTACT N.A.R.C.O.” “REVIVAL GOING ON CONDUCTED BY REVEREND H. HENDERSON OF TEXAS.” These are signboards on Mediterranean and Baltic. The second one is upside down and leans against a boarded-up window of the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ. There is an old peeling poster on a warehouse wall showing a figure in an electric chair. “The Black Panther Manifesto” is the title of the poster, and its message is, or was, that “the fascists have already decided in advance to murder Chairman Bobby Seale in the electric chair.” I pass an old woman who carries a bucket. She wears blue sneakers worn through. Her feet spill out. She wears red socks rolled at the knees. A white handkerchief, spread over her head, is knotted at the corners. Does she know where Marvin Gardens is?