One of the most widely reviewed first novels of the year, William McPherson’s Testing the Current is a portrayal of life in the Upper Midwest in 1939, immediately preceding the beginning of World War II. In part, this widespread response developed from McPherson’s reputation as a journalist: He founded the Washington Post Book World in 1972 and won a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished literary criticism in 1977, and he is currently on the editorial staff of the Washington Post, where he is one of that paper’s most highly regarded journalists. The more important reason for the critical attention, however, is the considerable artistic merit of the novel. Testing the Current does not display many of the characteristic limitations and flaws of a first novel; McPherson, in his fifties when the novel was published, has an intimate knowledge of the art of fiction, and in Testing the Current he has been very successful in converting that knowledge into the “concrete philosophy” which John Gardner believed was the special providence of the fiction writer.
The primary focus in the novel is on the experiences of a gentle, innocent eight-year-old, Tommy McAllister, and McPherson creates his character with extraordinary skill. The novel, however, is more than the presentation of a single character; on the periphery of Tommy’s experiences is the constant presence of the social world in which he lives. McPherson’s oblique portrayal of that social world—very similar in method to James Joyce’s portrayal of the larger social world in his early Dubliners—continually calls into question its morals and mores. Often in the novel, a tension exists between what the eight-year-old knows from his experiences and what McPherson suggests to the mature reader; thus, McPherson provides an ironic commentary on the ways of society, in particular on the ways of those more privileged members of the higher social circles. This ironic commentary is balanced by McPherson’s basically compassionate view of his protagonist, and the dual impulses of compassion and irony create a complexity of tone upon which the artistic merit of the novel rests.
Structurally, McPherson employs a rather deceptive, traditional approach, moving from scene to scene through Tommy’s eighth year, in what Russell Banks terms a “Proustian logic of association, carried forward by a gentle, scrupulously precise narrator.” McPherson is a stylist, and his tightly controlled language and technique have caused critics to compare his methods to those of Edith Wharton and Henry James. The pace of the novel is even, as steady as that of a weaver of an Oriental rug, wherein the details—the epigram is a quote from Stendhal on the necessary relationships between detail and originality and truth in writing—create the overall pattern, so that the completion of each carefully constructed sentence, like the precise tying of each knot in the rug, works toward the end of the overall design. The close exploration of Tommy’s consciousness—through the great abundance of detail—requires a commitment on the part of the reader, for as William Pritchard has noted, the novel “runs the risk, not always successfully, of narrative claustrophobia.” That claustrophobia is the same as many readers find in a story such as Joyce’s “The Dead”; like Joyce, McPherson continually balances the inner life of his protagonist against the larger social life in which the protagonist moves, and like Joyce, McPherson’s concern for language and its relationship to the thought process is constantly on the edge of the character’s consciousness. If the strategies of the novel seem familiar, however, it is because such strategies are inherent in a certain kind of novel, the realistic novel of psychological portrayal. McPherson has used those strategies to develop his own artistic vision of the world, for as Stefan Kanter has noted, “The author’s imagery and style are wholly his own; from here on, it is his turn to be analyzed and imitated.”
In the character of Tommy, McPherson presents a child who has all the advantages—not only material comforts, but also a mother who is loving and sympathetic to his needs and desires; an older brother who cares deeply for him; a housemaid who allows him to do most everything he wishes and yet who provides guidance; a father who, although driven by his management of his factory, loves and creates a place for Tommy in his life; and a whole neighborhood of families who view him as a valued member of the community and who respond favorably to his gentle, innocent nature. In this age of current ills—the aftermath of the Holocaust, nuclear armaments—such advantages as those of Tommy, such protection is often viewed with either nostalgia or impatience, but McPherson’s compassion toward the world of the child—the fresh world of new experiences and strange words—is rendered with such commitment that one does not grow impatient with the character. At the same time, the novel does not invite a sentimental longing for its era; McPherson’s ironic commentary guards against cheap nostalgia. David Lehman sees the novel as a “stunning evocation of—and elegy for—a vanished age of American innocence,” but Tommy’s innocence is not matched in the larger social world in which he moves, and the novel’s strength resides in the tension between those two poles.
If Tommy is not immediately threatened by the uncontrollable forces that bedevil many of his schoolmates, he is a sensitive child who knows of his privileged position in a subtle, vague way. Much of the novel is concerned with Tommy learning the subtleties of his upper-class society, with its attitudes toward people who make a living with their physical labor, with its attitudes toward Jews and Native Americans and blacks. Such attitudes contain prejudice, and although Tommy does not readily grasp the significance of this prejudice, the reader feels McPherson’s condemnation of it in the irony. Such...
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