It is 1939 and Tommy is eight years old. His two elder brothers are almost grown up and at college. His father has a factory and makes lots of money, which his mother is very good at spending. This wealth is interesting, as elsewhere there is real poverty. Tommy’s father had managed to make money during the Depression, had “somehow taken it out of the hole everyone else’s was going into”.
By the time William McPherson published his first novel, Testing the Current , in 1984, he was 51 and had already won a Pulitzer Prize for literary criticism, in 1977. He was in the middle of a distinguished career that moved between newspapers and book publishing.
It was regarded as a bit of a surprise, not only because he had written an autobiographically inspired novel drawing on his midwestern childhood but also because its languid, traditional style was in contrast to the many high-profile experimentalist works then in vogue. To put it in context, McPherson's debut appeared only months before Robert Coover unleashed his wilful extravaganza Gerald's Party , a satire that spans one night. Another contrast was to be seen when McPherson's fellow midwesterner and literary player William Maxwell, the legendary New Yorker fiction editor, returned to fiction with the dramatic short novel So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980), which, although also autobiographical, was based on a single dramatic incident and the lifetime of guilt it nurtured.
The republication of Testing the Current intrigues for many reasons. McPherson will be 80 on March 16th. This novel is interesting not only for its evocation of an earlier time, and a traditional literary style; it also reveals its influence on a more recent novel, Russell Banks's The Reserv e (2008), admittedly not a great book.
Yet it was Banks who had enthusiastically reviewed McPherson's novel, for the New York Times , on its publication more than two decades earlier. Both novels open with a beautiful young woman in the outdoors, catching the light and the attention of onlookers. McPherson wrote a sequel, To the Sargasso Sea (1987), which takes up Tommy's story as he approaches 40.
Testing the Current , written in an unassuming and almost unliterary third person, is seen entirely though the eyes of the young boy. At one point he asks his mother how old she is, and she replies that she is 22 and that his equally middle-aged father is 23; he accepts this until a neighbour corrects him, deciding that she is 42 or 43. This revelation unsettles Tommy, a skinny boy with sticking-out ears and a belief in truth.
His father is busy and drinks enough to make his mother comment on it, often. She, meanwhile, attends to long baths and dressing for the many parties and social functions held by members of their small community.
Some of these families and characters have their own secrets, such as the Jewish man who attends the Presbyterian church; Mrs Slade, a drug addict following her devastating surgeries; the woman who drinks too much; the husbands who linger with someone else's wife. The attractive and aptly named Mr Wolfe, who usually appears when Tommy's father is away on business.
The boy sees everything, and the narrative progresses as if it were a flower gradually opening up towards the sun. Truth takes the form of a killer bee; each of Tommy’s slow discoveries tends to hurt and pick away at his innocence.
Tommy’s mother, obviously middle-aged, continues to treat Tommy, her youngest son and a late arrival, as a baby. Life is organised around social events and holidays. This small coven, more neighbours than friends – there is little friendship in this book – heads off to a place known as The Island, where they maintain holiday homes.
[/CROSSHEAD]McPherson writes with the slow recall of a person not only remembering but then returning to those memories and further fleshing them out with details, a chance remark. For all the idle small talk and concentration on leisure, there is in the background a faint awareness of the world outside, not only of the place to which father retreats when an explosion kills three of his workers and damages his factory but of the World War that is gathering pace.
The set pieces, such as the preparations for Christmas, with their descriptions of presents, tend to be long and overwritten. The book is wordy, but then McPherson is allowing a boy’s mind full rein, something he does most successfully.
There are chilling touches, such as an incident when, after Tommy’s beloved grandmother dies, his father orders the undertaker to remove her pearls. Later, the pearls reappear, joyfully unwrapped by Tommy’s mother, who accepts them as her Christmas present. Near the close of the narrative, Tommy arrives home to find, yet again, Mr Wolfe at his home with his mother. He offers the visitor a present, a box with a snake inside it.
Many things are said; many more are left unspoken. McPherson’s slow-moving, deliberate novel takes a mature, kindly look at the world of a boy who is all of us. Tommy’s bewilderment and slow awareness are familiar and unsettling. He wonders about the real animals that once belonged to the stuffed heads and hunting trophies that he sees on the walls around him, now used as status symbols, indicators of a social class acquired through industrial graft, not time.
Most tellingly of all, he wonders why he can’t cry at his grandmother’s funeral: “He was rarely disturbed by the presence of his feelings, no matter how bad, but he was sometimes bothered by their absence. And sometimes he didn’t know what his feelings were supposed to be, or what they actually were.”
Truth, not style, makes this candid, unnerving and unexpectedly dark novel take hold of the imagination and the memory,, firmly pushing aside many flashier, more artistically accomplished works as it settles down to stay put.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent