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William McPherson’s first novel, Testing the Current, was originally published in 1984, which seems all wrong. Set among the wealthy classes in upper Michigan in the late 1930s, the book evokes Henry James and Edith Wharton in style and subject matter, not mid-’80s minimalism. This is a story about well-heeled WASPs, and as D.T. Max notes in the afterword to this reissue, by the time it came out “no one had written with care about these people in a decade.”
Nearly 30 years on, the book might seem like ancient history. McPherson, a Pulitzer-winning critic and founding editor of the Washington Post’s Book World, captured a lifestyle that no longer gets written about and, now, with Louis Auchincloss and John Updike in their graves, often invites open contempt. Yet it’s easy to appreciate what’s going on here. The novel is told from the perspective of Tommy MacAllister, an 8-year-old boy who is a remarkable observer of his tony surroundings. Tommy senses he lives in a bubble (“practically everybody seemed related somehow”), and the story is largely a chronicle of what he learns of its fragility once he starts poking around.
“What’s adultery?” is one of the first questions he asks, and in time he’ll get an answer. Tommy isn’t adorably precocious: A child’s perspective can make adults seem petty and callow (hiding under a table at a party, he spies a family friend rubbing his mom’s leg), yet McPherson cannily shows how Tommy is guided into his proper position. On Christmas he receives a rolltop desk to match that of his dad, the owner of a nearby factory, and he’s taught early on not to speak too freely about his good fortune: “Nice people didn’t talk about money because it might embarrass people who didn’t have as much and hurt their feelings.”
There’s something vaguely tragic about being stuck like this, McPherson suggests: The MacAllisters’ summer resort is a gilded cage. But Tommy’s age lets him wriggle through the bars, which is why he keeps gravitating to outsiders—and they to him. His closest adult confidant is Maxine, the aunt of his brother’s fiancée, who’s picked up a morphine habit after a double mastectomy. “Don’t you think it hurts when they cut off your tits?” she asks him. Tough stuff for a pretween to hear, but he admires her candor, which is absent from the adults who’d rather he look somewhere else (one family friend gives him a telescope) or indulge boyish reveries (mom gives him a kaleidoscope).
The novel’s climactic event is an anniversary party for Tommy’s parents, which becomes a modest catastrophe full of racist jibes and sexual improprieties. Reading the paper’s account of the event, Tommy notices “it told a lot about the party, but it didn’t tell what happened.” McPherson’s 1987 sequel, To the Sargasso Sea, reveals that Tommy grew up to be a playwright, an appropriate profession for a boy who closely studied role-playing. When Tommy enthuses about a wooden mask he received as a gift, his addict pal offers a tip: “Take some advice from old Maxine. Wear it.”