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Growing up in a small upper Midwestern town in the late 1930s young Tommy MacAllister is scarcely aware of the Depression much less the rumblings of war in Europe For his parents and their set life seems to revolve around dinners and dancing at the country club tennis dates and rounds of golf holiday parties summers on The Island and the many sparkling occasions full of people and drinks and food and laughter With his curiosity and impatience to grow up however Tommy will soon come to glimpse something darker beneath the genteel complacency the embarrassment of poor relations; the subtle and not so subtle slighting of the black or American Indian “help”; the discovery that not everybody in the club was Episcopalian; the mockery of President Roosevelt; the messy mechanics of sex and death; and “the commandment they talked least about in Sunday school” adulteryIn this remarkable 1984 debut novel the Pulitzer Prize–winning book critic William McPherson subtly leavens his wide eyed protagonist’s perspective with mature reflection and wry humor and surrounds him with a sizable cast of vibrant characters creating a scrupulously observed kaleidoscopic portrait that will shimmer in readers’ minds long after the final page is turned

10 thoughts on “Testing the Current

  1. says:

    This book starts with a kind of Prologue titled Kinderszenen What follows is indeed Scenes from a Childhood Tommy MacAllister is eight years old It is an age when you are small enough to hide under a dining room table; so you can see everything even things which you can not uite understand And answers are not easily gained What's adultery? he asked There was a long pause The fireflies played the lanterns burned soft and steady music and laughter and the sounds of dancing floated out from the clubhouseAdultery? Phil Meyer gave him a uick look Well I guess you'd say it's something adults do The year in which the the events of this book unfurl is 1939 But the events of the world do not reach the country club setting Tommy's father had actually made money in the Depression There are parties and dances and golf instead And adultery All seen through a child's eyes Tommy's mother often plays the Schumann Follow the notes Träumerei which means daydreaming but can also mean reverie; and this town seemingly so isolated is named Grande RivièreScenes from a childhood Tommy saw how Lucien Wolfe's footprint got on the curtain saw the spill on the carpet Things get cleaned of course You'd only know it was there if you saw the mess when it was made Mrs Aldrich said that whenever anyone spilled anything she just cleaned up the spot at once It was a lot easier for her to treat the spots as they occurred That way it never showed the dirt Oh of course sometime it might have to be washed she said but it would probably never look as good again She'd leave that job for her children or her grandchildrenAt the last big party of the summer at the club Mr Hutchins gets beyond drunk and Ophelia the club steward suggests maybe he's had enough He shouts a horribly offensive racial epithet at her and is hustled away One of the hosts says I don't think anyone noticed As if you know the real concern is not Ophelia but an awkward unpleasantness among the guests Mrs Steer a very nicely drawn character considers going to Ophelia to apologize but Maybe it wasn't the right thing to do Maybe it would make her feel funny Tommy noticed that too saw that mess as it was made By the end it was that subtlety which won me over That Mr Wolfe's coins became tarnished that Mrs Steer's writing was hard to read; that there are many kinds of messes that they are noticed The people at Mrs Wentworth's party were all talking about the dance everyone of them had been there and about the war As if the two subjects were eual you see Mrs Steer was there trying to find some news on the radio but she wasn't having any luck The radio was just playing church music Damn it she said She looked at him She was not smiling The whole world is blowing up Tommy Nothing will ever be the same again and she snapped off the radio and left the roomHolding a grandchild I wonder at the messes he will inherit That Mrs Steer born in Denmark would be churning over what would be the right thing to do for 'Ophelia' is just one of the little nuances in this book which would make for a very nice group read or discussion

  2. says:

    Veneer is the best word here This is the rather restricted world of upscale Grand Riviere MI during the Depression The hard world outside is exactly that however Outside The novel is this world viewed through the eyes of 7 year old Tommy MacAllister who always keeps in mind what he's been told is the good and best way of conducting oneself with friends and neighbors and particularly with adults It's adults Tommy observes most closely and there the veneer becomes apparent as he realizes there are some things he doesn't understand but still knows enough to have misgivings about Beneath the propriety of family and neighbors there's an undercurrent of mischief and misconduct he can register but not uite make sense of Faintly reminding me of William Maxwell's fine Time Will Darken It this is an intense and microscopic look at his parents siblings and those they socialize with Nicely rendered consistently innocent yet full of clues it drags at times because the observations of Tommy are often too detailed without any forward movement in the novel other than his observations themselves The long Thanksgiving Day dinner and Christmas day celebration are examples The novel is best when Tommy sees adults being themselves He suspects but doesn't fully understand His pov however passes understanding to the reader

  3. says:

    Perfect Unmarred by sentimentality false epiphanies or forced drama this novel both elegantly depicts a specific class in a specific time and conveys with rare understanding and subtlety the inevitable poignancy of growing up I can't believe it took me so long to discover this book If I had a list of favorite books this would make it easily

  4. says:

    I generally dislike novels with juvenile narrators If I'd known the protagonist of this one would be age 7 8 for the duration I doubt I would have picked it upThe setting is far northern Michigan near the Canadian border in the year 1939 The bulk of the characters are upper middle class Wasps with one or two Jews and some black and Indian Native American help Workersdomesticsservants Young Tommy MacAllister has attractive parents and two much older brothers He is friends with the youngsters in town but seems to spend most of his time with the middle aged ladies his family knows Everyone spends hours at the country club golfing and eating They all vacation on the Island nearby with the Indians ferrying them back and forth in boats Tommy's mother has an affair with one of the men in town Not much else happens Tommy's tiny circumscribed world is half focused on all the different people in it and half on holidays meals and gifts brought himPeople seem to think this white Waspy country club Midwestern Republican milieu is a vanished world view spoilerI would think so myself if I hadn't met people who are still in it Narrow minded comfortably but not obscenely rich they belong to two or three country clubs own vacation homes in two different states drive big cars loathe liberals attend state universities rather than Ivy League schools play a lot of golf If they think you are an ally they will let their guard down and make snide racist comments about blacks and Jews They take family portraits where everyone is wearing the same outfit or at least the same color scheme Appearances are everything The right brand names matter The females of the species are obsessed with interior decor They don't really care about art as long as it matches the sofa upholstery They don't read books but when they buy books it's an aesthetic purchase they have to be the leatherbound kind suitable for a formal living room or a panelled library hide spoiler

  5. says:

    I can best enthuse about this novel by way of an improbable analogy Don't laugh but the closest approximation to the feeling that this book gives me is A Christmas Story yes the filmWhy? It's hard to describe Both take place in the 1930s and both deal with uncentered ungrounded memory Both are nostalgic works of no little whimsy and both are fine examples of literature as through a child's eyes deftly crafted by an adult years afterwardsThere isn't even a central plot but like Ralphie's tale is a collection or even collision of disparate memories peopled by wonderfully ordinary peopleWith no real plot to speak of Tommy MacAllister age 8 walks us through his upper middle class or higher hard to tell life somewhere in Michigan ? in 1939 The looming war and other things are only very peripheral In fact the whole account seems a set up for all the bad shit that will happen later Tommy observes the crazy shit the adults around him say and do and he tries to understand them and so do we None of us have uite figured it out yet and that might be the key thingGreat characters patchwork uiet beauty unjustly overlooked these days

  6. says:

    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 engagementsTommy is a keen observer of behaviour often picking up much 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 uest to make sense of itAnd 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 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 NYRBDriven by a desire to understand the ‘many mysteries of the grown up world’ Tommy is constantly curious about his surroundings freuently asking uestions 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 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 complicated than it seems my darling A lot 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 than others How could there be different kinds of love? pg 121Tommy’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 acuired 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 exciting and interesting as a result“Why does Mrs Slade take morphine?” Tommy asked It sounded delicious pg 36To read the rest of my review please click here

  7. says:

    This is a very solid American bildungsroman And its success is due to both the strange world it is set in and the precocious voice of 8 year old Tommy MacAllister The setting is a small town in northern Michigan somewhere close to the lake and not far from Canada Tommy his family and their friends live in town during the winter and on the Island during the summer It's set in 1939 or so The Depression is over and most people here have come out if untouched though some have lost their former fortune They are rich they are Christians mostly they are conservative mostly and don't like FDR The town is staffed mainly by local Native Americans whose treatment is paternalistic There is one Jewish family who started off poor became rich and are only half accepted The Meyers give money to the local church than any other family Everyone likes to play golf It's a world that has disappeared now a world that is really hard to imagine for me in fact Wealthy without being greedy or crude Intolerant but generally nice The whole town takes summer off And the families remember their foreign ancestors while at the same time being very much American It's a world that though far from perfect smells nice from the modern age Nostalgia is clearly playing a part here but it comes without the idealism that gives nostalgia its bad connotation instead it seem to inspire McPherson to recreate an old dead and really pretty interesting worldAnd Tommy's voice is wonderful He's the smart little kid who is growing up and realizing that the adult world is flawed and deceptive Racism is under the surface and certain people let it out when drunk Women are judged judge have little to do and at the mercy of their local society Adultery lurks not far behind even the most perfect of families And Tommy sees it all with his own growing eyes He doesn't know everything that is going around him but he picks up on a lot and fortunately the reader can see his imperfect perception and fill in the gaps with their own understand of human nature with the help of a really well written book by McPherson

  8. says:

    Beautifully written but not my kind of book Story is about upper middle class or lower upper class routine doings in 1939 Did not like the voice Narrator is voice of 8 year old whose musings reflections observations and descriptions are not of an 8 year old but rather of an adult who is pretending to be 8 years old I found it annoying This is what I call for me a grind it out book I never stop reading a book I started because I figure I can always learn something However that being said this is one I would have stopped if I didn't have my personal grind it out policy

  9. says:

    An eight year old in an idyllic midwestern youth comes to grips with the sexual and moral misdeeds of his elders McpHerson has a real genius for replicating the mindset of childhood there’s a ton of stuff in here that echo my and I suspect your dim memories of that age the odd traditions our young minds grasp onto our fears and obsessions the enormous enthusiasms which only children are capable and for which adults are ever envious Lyrical beautiful lots of fun Check it out

  10. says:

    I could not put this book down I know some people will say that this is all about upper middle class snobs and racists in upper Michigan on the brink of WWII so what But if you want a slice of a pre war society that no longer exists seen through the eyes of a 7 year old boy and lyrically written read on There a number of finely drawn portraits Mrs Steer originally from Denmark who is the only adult in this small society who is a Democrat and supports FDR; the doctor who has given up alcohol for Coca Cola and is trying to convince his neighbors to do the same; the father who is an industrialist and a loving involved parent at the same time; the glamourous mother who is probably involved with a dashing owner of a Canadian silver mine For instance one New Year's morning the whole crowd returns from the country club party for a 3 am breakfast at Tommy's home He is not supposed to be awake and is spying on the adults He sees his mother being bumped into at the stove by a guest while she is pouring boiling water into teapots which causes her to scald herself Luke Wolf the silver mine owner who is home for the holidays immediately pulls down her stocking and starts rubbing butter into the burn while Mrs Steer stands by and pronounces that he is simply cooking the injury Later Tommy crawls under one of the dining tables to listen to the conversation Instead he sees Wolf who is sitting next to his mother while his father sits at the head of another table take her burned leg into his lap and massage it As the guests are getting up from the meal Mrs Steer drops an earring and discovers Tommy under the table while searching for it His mother takes him back up to bed and he begins crying saying over and over again Oh Mommy why did you have to burn your leg? And you know that he knows something is wrong with the picture but he can't explain or fully understand it