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Hudson Street Press, 196 pp, $19.95
Paul Padial was desperate. While camping in New York’s Harriman State Park, a friend tripped on a tree stump, breaking the coffee maker he was carrying. Dying for a fix, Padial and his brother did what any caffeine junkie would do—they constructed a coffee maker out of a coat hanger and one of Paul’s socks. That was in the mid-1980s, an era whose pop culture bestowed a name upon such ingenuity. Beginning with its 1985 Alan Smitheedirected pilot, and for seven seasons in all, ABC’s MacGyver offered the weekly adventures of a mulleted, mild-mannered Midwesterner (portrayed by Richard Dean Anderson), who thwarted evil using paper clips, duct tape, and other everyday items. In so doing, he created the “MacGyverism”: The use of whatever’s on hand, particularly by creating a tool, device, or other contraption, to save the day. Esquire editor Brendan Vaughan has collected tales of real-life MacGyverisms in What Would MacGyver Do? True Stories of Improvised Genius in Everyday Life. If the resulting collection features tales of MacGyver–esque ingenuity—coffee grounds double as a coagulant; a fan, some copper tubing, and a garbage can becomes an A/C unit; an inhaler is repaired with some packing tape and an empty Aquafina bottle—it’s also, as a whole, a little patchy. It’s not that a few of the solutions seem slight. (It’s definitely more Mentos commercial than MacGyver to use Chex Mix to gain traction for your van.) Nor that they often unfold in situations that lack the drama of a typical MacGyver plot. (Bruce Hobson’s Extend-a-Rake gizmo may be ingenious, but at the end of the day, all it’s gonna do is clean the gutters.) No, the real problem is that Vaughan broadens an already somewhat loose definition of MacGyverism to encompass “acts of improvised genius, period.” In the MacGyver-themed MasterCard commercial that aired during this year’s Super Bowl (which Vaughan cites as partial proof of the show’s pop-cultural impact), Anderson makes a narrow escape thanks to items like a paper clip, a turkey baster, and nasal spray. He sure didn’t bluff his way through Valentine’s Day by pulling his high-school football jacket out of the closet and giving it to his girlfriend (as rock scribe Chuck Klosterman does in his contribution). And if MacGyver got by on his scientific acumen, it’s discouraging to read Stacey Grenrock Woods fall back on postmodernism. “[V]ery Charlie Kaufmanesque, very meta, very ’97,” she imagines Vaughan saying in response to her submission. “I can’t use it.” If only she were right—but Vaughan used it anyway, suggesting that there’s a thin line between resourcefulness and desperation. That’s not to say the collection doesn’t have some memorable stories. The flaming-match cannon Donald K. McIvor crafted out of clothespins as a kid in the suburbs of Winnipeg, Manitoba, sounds pretty cool, but what gives his tale, “Confessions of a Preteen Arsonist,” bite is that he and his buddy used it to accidentally flambé the beginnings of a house. And though there’s not a shred of duct tape in journalist Chris Jones’ account of how he tracked down elusive football star Ricky Williams in Australia, it’s an admirable tale of shoe-leather reporting. If the right stories partly make up for the collection’s dearth of true MacGyverisms, Vaughan himself learned a similar lesson early on in life. A teenage Vaughan and his buddies, busted for selling fake IDs in Annandale—IDs created by raiding a dumpster at the Arlington DMV—chose to rat out their customers to avoid facing charges. “I’d rather have the story now,” writes Vaughan, “than the beer then.” —Joe Dempsey