Picks and Pans Review: Assembling California

updated 04/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by John McPhee

It's been a long and rock-filled road since the day in 1978 when McPhee and a geologist named Karen Kleinspehn stood on the west end of the George Washington Bridge outside New York City and, to the presumed consternation of the truckers rumbling by on Interstate 80, began peering at the history of the world as it lay exposed in the cracks and fractures of a road cut. McPhee has since followed 1-80 westward across the continent in the company of other geologists, using a literary equivalent of the scientists' Hastings Triplet lens to examine the modern theory of plate tectonics in three previous books on geology, Basin and Range (1980), In Suspect Terrain (1982) and Rising from the Plains (1986). Now, in the fourth and concluding book in his geological tetralogy, McPhee and Interstate 80 plunge into California at a moment when human time intersected with geological time—the shattering Loma Prieta earthquake near San Francisco in October 1989. His guide is geologist Eldridge Moores, a cello-playing Arizonan who got moved to California by his interest in the San Andreas Fault. (Moores's rate of northward progress was considerably faster than that of the fault's, which can move you and everything under you about a mile north every 60,000 years.) McPhee renders Moores's side trips to the wine country, gold-mining camps and even the Acropolis in Greece in typically fascinating detail.

In the end, though, the real central character of all four books is time—deep time—time enough to allow the globe's continents to go sliding and slipping and colliding like so many bumper cars. After reading this book, you too will marvel with McPhee over the fact that the rocks on the summit of Mount Everest are marine limestone. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $21)

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