Testing the Current by William McPherson (NYRB Classics)

First published in 1984 and reissued by NYRB Classics in 2013, William McPherson’s excellent first novel Testing the Current harks back to a bygone age. Set in the late 1930s in a small town in Michigan near the Canadian border, the novel focuses on one year in the life of eight-year-old Tommy MacAllister. Each summer, Tommy’s family and their financially-comfortable WASP friends retreat to a group of small islands in the river that runs by their town, where their days centre on rounds of golf at the country club, dinners, dances and other social engagements.

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Tommy is a keen observer of behaviour, often picking up much more than his elders realise, but at eight years of age, he doesn’t always know why people behave the way they do. And this idea brings us to the novel’s main theme: namely, this young boy’s growing awareness of the adult world and his quest to make sense of it:

And at that moment, as he stared off into the dusk, beneath the paper lanterns hanging from the eaves of the long porch and the moss baskets of ivy and begonias, there was nothing on his mind that he could put into words, more a state of mind than anything on it – solitude, the mystery of life, that sort of thing, which at eight, he had a sense of but lacked the structure in which to put it. (pg. 11, NYRB)

Driven by a desire to understand the ‘many mysteries of the grown-up world,’ Tommy is constantly curious about his surroundings, frequently asking questions his parents seem unable to answer to his satisfaction:

“Do you love Daddy?” Tommy persisted. “Of course I love Daddy,” his mother replied. She was really exasperated now. “He’s my husband! He’s your father! Now Tommy, stop being a pest.” But Tommy, unable to resist, asked, “Who do you love more, me or Daddy?”

“I love you both,” his mother said, softening a little. “It’s a different kind of love, that’s all. When you get older, you’ll learn that love is a lot more complicated than it seems, my darling. A lot more complicated. It’s not at all simple.”

It seemed simple to Tommy. Love was love, he thought, and that was that, the only difference being that you loved some people more than others. How could there be different kinds of love? (pg. 121)

Tommy’s brothers, John and David both college-age, both dating girls seem very grown-up with their own lives to lead. But the young boy finds adult allies in the shape of Mrs Steer, mother of his friend Amy and the only Democrat in his parents’ set and the somewhat eccentric Mrs Slade, whom – to the embarrassment of his mother – Tommy finds fascinating. Mrs Slade, a neighbour who also happens to be the aunt of David’s girlfriend Margie, injects herself with morphine, a habit acquired following a double mastectomy – another thing everybody except Tommy seems to know, but never discusses. Never that is until a family dinner (with Margie in attendance) when Tommy tells of how Mrs Slade showed him the needle and injected herself in the leg. Later that night when John tells Tommy that Mrs Slade is ‘a dope fiend,’ the young boy considers Mrs Slade more exciting and interesting as a result:

“Why does Mrs Slade take morphine?” Tommy asked. It sounded delicious (pg. 36)

As the novel progresses, little happens in the way of plot: Tommy’s grandmother dies; a fire breaks out at his father’s plant; the family celebrates Tommy’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas and a silver wedding anniversary. But throughout, Tommy continues to struggle to process the behaviour of those around him. In a pivotal scene on New Year’s Eve, our protagonist hides under the dinner table during a party hosted by his parents. Unbeknownst to the guests, he observes something he isn’t meant to see, something he knows to be wrong, and this unsettles him deeply. When Tommy is discovered under the table, he wishes he had never come down to the party and his mother takes him to bed:

There were tears in her eyes, too. Tommy thought, when she bent to kiss him, and tuck the blankets around him so he’d be snug and warm in the frozen middle of the first night of the New Year. The cold heavy clips she wore in the neck of her dress brushed against him as her soft lips touched his own soft cheek. Tommy hugged his mother tightly to him.

[…]

 “There, there,” she said. She sat on the edge of his bed and began to sing her familiar lullaby: “Bye baby bunting, Daddy’s gone a-hunting, Gone to get a rabbit skin to wrap my baby bunting in,” but the lullaby did not assure him. The pale light from the half-open door to the hallway radiated from behind her. It caught in the stones in her ears, in the jeweled arrow in her hair, in the two clips she wore like tiny shields on her dress, and flared in the prism of his tears like a shower of cold, infinitesimal, brilliant darts. He could not see her shadowed face. (pgs. 187-8)

Alongside its primary theme, Testing the Current also touches on other issues of the time. Although never to the fore, the relatively recent Depression is there in the background, and while Tommy’s father has done well to profit in recent years, other members of his family are down-at-heel. Racial tensions occasionally flare as Native Indians serve the island and WASP community.

Finally, there is a strong sense of nostalgia, family customs and rituals in this novel, a theme illustrated by this passage in which Tommy, along with his brothers and mother, decorate the Christmas tree:

When the lights were finally in place, Tommy took the ornaments very carefully from their boxes and laid them out on a table near the tree. He hung his special favorites on the branches he could reach while John and David and his mother decorated the higher branches. His mother even stood on one of the dining-room chairs to do it, which was breaking one of her own rules. Then, when all the ornaments and lights were in place, she straightened out the tattered, crumpled tinsel as usual, pressing it with her hand against the tabletop, and, because no one else would do it, draped it from the branches herself. The sight was touching to Tommy, and he moved to help her. He was filled with happiness, and a welling sadness, too, there with his mother and her tinsel, his handsome brothers –even David looked handsome to him now – and he wished his father would take part. He made a comment occasionally from his chair, looking up from his business papers and columns of figures from the adding machine at the plant, but mostly he stuck to his work. He wasn’t very good at decorating, he said. (pg 137)

I chose this section as it also highlights how Tommy’s relationship with his father differs to that with his mother. While Tommy enjoys a close and loving bond with his mother, that closeness isn’t quite reciprocated in his relationship with his father. At one point, Tommy reflects how his father could be so nice one minute but end up saying something mean the next.

Testing the Current is a quietly compelling slow-burner. It’s beautifully written, and its focus on Tommy and his family’s day-to-day lives reminds me (once again) of John Williams’ Stoner, a remarkable book that gives us the story of a man’s seemingly less than remarkable life. There are similarities, too, with Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, although McPherson’s prose feels more matter-of-fact — and appropriately so considering his focus is the life of an eight-year-old-boy — than Stegner’s .

I’ll finish with one of my favourite sections from this book in which Tommy reflects on the passing of his grandmother:

Her life was over. It was a blessing. He thought of her lying now in her lavender dress on the pale silk of her coffin, alone in the darkness of the earth, the rose grasped in her hand. He thought of the soft skin stretched over her cheekbones, and he imagined her eyes behind their closed lids, fixed and straining toward the surface, her face expressionless, her body still, waiting for what he did not know. He thought of the whole vast population of the dead, of all those bodies lying amidst the roots of the trees in the cemetery by the river, composed, quiet, facing the earth above them, and the earth the sky, separated from one another by the limitless, embracing soli and from the crushing weight of the world itself by their solitary wooden cases lined with silk. How lonely it seemed, what flimsy protection. He wondered if his grandmother’s good smell was warming the winter earth, and if she knew when the sun was shining, when the snow was falling, when the grass would grow again. (pg. 65)

Testing the Current is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.

15 thoughts on “Testing the Current by William McPherson (NYRB Classics)

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I think you’d like this one very much, Susan. I found it so absorbing even though very little happens in terms of plot, and it did remind me a little of Crossing to Safety.

      Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    It is striking at how many good and even great pieces of literature are based on narratives of childhood. I suppose it is reflective on just how much our childhood impacts our adulthood.

    The episodes that you describe sound really meaningful and the quotes are very good. This book sounds more then worthwhile.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, I agree. And even though this is a third-person narrative, somehow the story really gives a sense of life and events from Tommy’s point-of-view.

      Thanks, Brian. It’s a terrible cliché, but I think this one will stay with me for some time.

      Reply
  2. Guy Savage

    I have this but haven’t read it yet. For its look at small town American life, I’m sure I’ll like it. Plus it’s a NYRB release and I have great success w/their titles. Just finished John O’Hara’s Ten North Frederick which is another look at WASPS, and it sounds as though there are some commonalities there. I have to let the O’Hara settle though before reading anything similar.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I hope you like this one, Guy (whenever you find the right moment to pick it up). I found it very absorbing; even though very little happens in terms of plot, it really conveys a sense of the boy’s viewpoint as he tries to make sense of the adult world around him. There’s a wonderful sense of time and place and a human quality to the characters. I’ve had a good hit rate with NYRB, too, and I’m struggling to think of any disappointments.

      I’ll look out for your review of the John O’Hara, and it does sound as if there are similarities between the two. I’ve never read O’Hara, but feel sure he’d suit me. In fact, I might have a copy of Appointment in Samarra somewhere…

      Reply
  3. 1streading

    Great review. Not a novel I’d heard of at all, but being part of the NYRB list suggests a certain quality, and your comments make it sound very interesting. I’m hoping to rectify my lack of American fiction next month!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Grant. I can’t recall where I first heard of this novel, but when I saw it going for half-price in a bookshop sale, I couldn’t resist! And yes, the NYRB pedigree was a selling point. I don’t know how they manage to find such a terrific selection of gems, but whoever curates their selection has a great eye for these things. I liked this one very much; a beautiful slow-burner.

      I have many, many gaps in my own reading, but some of my favourite reads this year have come from the US, albeit modern classics rather than contemporary novels.

      Reply
  4. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  5. Max Cairnduff

    Classic NYRB territory. It does sound very good, and I wasn’t surprised to see your comparisons to Williams and Stegner (not that I’ve read either, funny how much one just picks up through these conversations).

    A definite maybe. It would be a definite definitely, but I already have so many of those…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, textbook NYRB. I do love these quiet stories with their focus on certain moments in the lives of everyday people. It’s not terribly well known, which is a shame as it deserves to be up there with some of the best American fiction of this period. Stegner is a wonderful writer. I loved his Crossing to Safety, possibly even more than John Williams’ Stoner. I’d like to get back to this territory at some point, but then again I have so many plans for the future…

      Reply

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