On Jan. 10, 1992, four types of plastic toys toppled into the Pacific on their way from China to the United States: frog, turtle, beaver and duck -- 7,200 of each. Lost shipping containers are not unusual, so while journalist Donovan Hohn does a thoughtful job of explaining the historic, economic, artistic and scientific context for this problem through that 1992 spill, the unique pleasure in his book lies with -- pause for breath, there's more! -- what else he somehow manages also to fit in.
Hohn searches for reasons why there is so much wayward garbage; where it starts from and where it goes, who collects it, and what they do with it; and what that ultimately means for the world's environment and economy.
At the start of his research, he is just weeks away from becoming a father. Interestingly, Herman Melville's first child was born during the writing of "Moby-Dick." Likely taking inspiration from that as much as from Melville's fiction, Hohn weaves conceptions about childhood and purity into "Moby-Duck." During a prenatal class, his mind swimming with early understanding of the ocean's garbage patches, Hohn realizes the term "sounds like 'cabbage patch,' and for a moment I am picturing a thousand silvery, gape-mouthed heads bobbing on the open sea." This is just the beginning of Hohn's thoughts on the subject, a mix of light and surreal.
Hohn also philosophizes about object vs. thought: A goofy-looking real duck lives "outside the meanings with which we burden" it. A rubber duck "is not burdened by thought. It is thought." Even regarding his research, he suggests, "No matter how much forensic evidence I assembled, it would remain illusory."
But Hohn does not shy from political notions. Visiting a toy factory, he feels he "had traveled not into the future, which supposedly now belongs to China, but into some 'Twilight Zone' version of America's economic past," and that a worker in Dongguan should visit Akron to preview the future, not "the other way around."
Hohn's regular "nocturnal flights of fancy" help him in procuring and sharing so much varied detail. Sometimes it crosses the line into "extravagant sauntering": late in his journey, Hohn changes his narrative style for a few paragraphs to imitate the speaking styles of two people he happens to meet on a ship.
Ears perk as "the mossy earth begins to crackle and crunch under foot ... [the sound] of crumpling plastic bottles ... buried under humus and moss." Nostrils quiver as "this bulging, cumbersome bouquet of derelict flotsam, still dripping rain, spinning and swaying a little, took improbably to the air, snapping a few spruce branches as it went, and vanished into the blue asterisk of sky."
And Hohn's writing shares his self-aware humor. Drunk in a Sitka bar, Hohn plays an earnest Quixote. Unimpressed with his professional goals, a woman pulls up the yellow hood of his raincoat and demands he quack. "'Again,' the old woman says, with sadistic glee. 'Quack,' I say. 'Quack, quack.'"
Kristin Thiel is a writer and editor in Portland, Ore.