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William McPherson: Testing the Current

I had heard of William McPherson before because he wrote criticism for The Washington Post (winning a Pulitzer for his work in 1977), but I didn’t know he had written any fiction. Testing the Current (1984) is the first of his two novels, and when I read blurbs about it I was immediately anxious to read it – a coming-of-age story set in the midwestern United States in 1939 – because I was reminded of how much I loved William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow and John Williams’ Stoner (my reviews here and here, respectively). Indeed, the clarity and precision of the prose, the “American” voice, the focus on family, memory, time, and change — all did remind me of those two great books. However, despite the easy comparisons, Testing the Current held me under a spell of its own making.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

“Oh, what’s a little adultery among friends?”

Such are the things that eight-year-old Tommy hears and questions as he begins to navigate through the adult world of a small but wealthy town in the northern Midwest in 1939. Of course, he’s not just questioning what that statement says about the social mores of the town (someday he will) but also about the meaning of “adultery” itself: “It was the commandment they talked least about in Sunday school, one of the mysteries of the adult world, else why the name?”

Even at eight, Tommy isn’t the type of person to simply learn and follow the social mores, to navigate the waters he’s expected to. When he was younger his mother always told him she was twenty-one, and he always believed it. One day, another woman chuckled at this, and Tommy knew then and there that it was a lie. Always curious, he now also distrusts adults. Thus he becomes the perfect, almost innocent, guide to the dark corners of a small community that is starting to change because it cannot sustain the weight of its own image.

We pass through a year with Tommy (with some back and forth to other times), and we pass through a year of routine and ritual gatherings, of death and inheritance. It begins, “That summer morning . . . ” and we watch the well-to-do gather at the golf course, Tommy already a bit confused not just at the strange names of the gold clubs but also at the strange mix of people. Daisy Meyer, née Addington, for example; everyone was surprised when she married Phil Meyer because he was a Jew. Sure, he and his parents were always “in the same pew at St. James’, singing as lustily as Episcopalians then permitted themselves to.” But some people still remember when Phil’s grandfather came into town, “a Yiddish speaking peddler buying and selling junk, who made his children and grandchildren rich from other people’s trash.” Of course, such prejudice is always on the periphery of these social gatherings. Everyone has to talk about it, but only in hushed tones.

As I mentioned earlier, though, Tommy needs to question these things and cannot accept the ideas he is simply expected to inherit. He knows it’s strange, but he prefers the company of Ophelia, the “Negro steward” who ran the club. When we meet her, we see just how subtly the social customs trickle down to Tommy:

The word “Negro” was never used in her presence, because the condition it described was thought to be embarrassing at best and irreversible in any case, and polite people did not call attention to the ill fortune of others, particularly when the others couldn’t help it. Their feelings might be hurt.

Communal gatherings are a big part of this book, but it does remain focused on individual relationships, particularly those within Tommy’s family. His parents have been married for twenty five years, and Tommy is the youngest of three sons (the youngest by some distance). We go through holidays with them. The familiar yet threatening feel of these family gatherings reminded me of the great last section of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (my review here). One of my favorite such gathering in this book is a long section devoted to Thanksgiving Day, during which Tommy asks his mother, “Do you love Daddy?” Of course she does, but it’s much more complicated when on New Year’s Eve it’s his parents’ “turn to throw a party” and Tommy sees Lucien Wolfe rubbing his mother’s thigh.

It’s a subtle story, the themes wrapped up in lovely prose. As an example, I’d like to cite a rather long passage. Tommy’s grandmother has died, her funeral is over, and Tommy is sitting in her room thinking of her and her smell:

The warm yeasty scent seemed locked into the very wallpaper and the plaster and lath behind it. It had a life of its own, independent of his grandmother’s whose life was over. Tommy thought about that, about what it meant, “over.” 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, fixing 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 soil and from the crushing weight of the world itself by their solitary wooden cases lined with silk. How lonely it all 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, and when the grass would grow again.

The smell seems permanent; Tommy thinks it will always be there even though his grandmother is gone, but we know it will pass and will never warm the winter earth. And how flimsy indeed that silk-lined coffin, and everyone isolated, solitary in the earth. The routine, ritual, the eternal cycle of the last line – it will all end for us, and Tommy begins to realize it’s probably for the better.

2 thoughts on “William McPherson: Testing the Current

  1. leroyhunter says:

    Fine review Trevor. NYRB have some great stuff coming out and this is top of my list.

    Enjoyed your podcast as well – my first sample.

  2. Lee Monks says:

    Yes, fine review (and great long excerpt). I’ll agree with leroyhunter as well: this is the 2013 NYRB Classics release I’m keenest on.

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