Some books elicit a contented sigh upon turning the last page. Not only does William McPherson's Testing the Current do that, but it gets a "wow" (imagine a thin low whistle) from me in response to it as well. How did he do that? Create such a perfectly evoked world, so wholly believable? This is a story in which lots happens and not very much at the same time. Much like life. I want to go grab a copy and press it into your hands, so you can read it, too. The title is apt as a strong current flows in this story, so much happens below the surface. See how calm and pristine the water appears on the cover? Don't be fooled by it. It is a swirling morass of emotions underneath and at its center is eight-year-old Tommy MacAllister who narrates the story. The reader gets a glimpse into the lives of not only Tommy and his family, but, too, of the residents of the small Michigan town Grand Rivière.
I think the word is verisimilitude. It's the Depression-era, sometime in the late 1930s, though you wouldn't really know it by the world in which Tommy lives. McPherson writes with such a strong sense of authenticity it is almost surprising that the book was written in 1984 and not 1934. It's not overburdened by the sort of detail you find in historical fiction, yet it is still quite detailed in its way. It's steeped in the era yet it has a timeless quality to it as well, which is what makes it a classic. It's beautifully observed and all through the eyes of a little boy, a little boy who does the sorts of surprising and occasionally naughty things little boys do. A boy who sees all the things going on around him, thinks about them, is affected by them and reacts to them, yet still doesn't necessarily understand them, but the reader does. I think that's part of the beauty of this story--seeing this world from such an interesting, perhaps even naive, though always questioning, vantage point.
The MacAllisters are an upper middle class family who live in a nice home, belong to the country club and can afford to throw lavish parties and redecorate their house. Tommy is the youngest of three boys, but his elder siblings are both older and in college. He gets along reasonably well with John, but tends to antagonize and be antagonized by middle brother David. In the summer they spend their vacations on the islands dotting the dotting the river. Tommy can even see as far as Canada, and from his window at home he can watch the fires at his father's plant. Furnaces rage day and night at the factory where drums are manufactured, which contain chemicals. His father spends much of his time working. A formidable man, Tommy doesn't always like him, but he loves his mother to distraction, though she on occasion disappoints him. He has fond memories of his grandmother, whom he misses when she passes away.
Although Tommy's world is a comfortable one, there are occasional glimpses of how the other half lives, even if he doesn't always understand why they act the way they do or what is meant by the jokes and gossip he hears about them from his parents and their friends. Like when a few of the local Indians get into a fight--"Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing they haven't fought about before." In this case a little matter of adultery that ended in the wronged woman almost scalping her husband. The different social stratas of Grand Rivière are clearly delineated. Certain people can belong to the country club and others can only work there. It's where Tommy must take golf lessons, which he dislikes but endures. And it's where he watches a drunken friend of his parents verbally abuse one of Tommy's favorite people, Ophelia, who is black. Tommy feels it deeply, and while it's the sort of behavior that may not be exactly sanctioned is at least overlooked, though Tommy knows it's wrong.
There's a strong sense of nostalgia to this story of better and happier times, though of course it's easy to read between the lines. The story takes place over the course of a year and the reader watches (and it is quite often so inviting really) the rituals of this middle class world--the holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, of the feasts that are prepared, the rounds of parties and dinners, of the summers spent opening the houses on the Island to be spent there until school resumes in the autumn. But however shimmery and sparkly it appears on the surface, Tommy also sees (and wonders about) what goes on underneath. He watches as one of his favorite neighbors injects needles in her arm, not understanding her addiction to painkillers. It's something everyone knows about but won't acknowledge. He hears the petty squabbles between neighbors and the vindictiveness of some of the country club women. He senses how wrong it is but doesn't quite understand the reasons why. And he feels sick when one New Year's Eve he silently hides under a table and watches a family friend knead his mother's thigh.
For a story where not much happens there is a surprising sense of narrative tension. And I especially like how McPherson tells the story, how the reader gets to peek in at this world, but nothing is tidied up at the end. You furiously turn pages toward the end in hopes of finding out how it all ends only to discover It's left up to the reader to infer what happens next. Perhaps some of the questions are answered in the sequel to Testing the Current, To the Sargasso Sea, which takes place some thirty years on. Apparently this was a sleeper hit when it was first published, a word-of-mouth success that was named to a number of best reads lists. I'm so glad NYRB has reissued it and that I was able to read it via my monthly subscription. It's one of my favorite books so far this year and deserves to be rediscovered by readers. It has such a comfortable place in my mind, I'm not sure I can bear to read the sequel. What if it isn't as good, or I don't like Tommy as much as I do right now? Maybe is NYRB reissues it (it seems to be out of print) I'll give it a whirl. Stefanie recently wrote about it, too, and had an equally good response to it.
Next up with my NYRB reading is Vasily Grossman's An Armenian Sketchbook. I've read the introduction so far and am looking forward to the book. If all the forthcoming NYRBs are half as good as Testing the Current was, I am in for a treat.