By Kevin Nance
January 12, 2013
One of the most memorable (if belated) literary debuts of the past 30 years was by William McPherson, whose "Testing the Current" — an exquisite, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel set in the late 1930s and early '40s in Grande Riviere, a small industrial city in northern Michigan — appeared to nearly universal acclaim in 1984, when the author was 51.
The book's 8-year-old protagonist, Tommy MacAllister, spends his days at a riverfront country club and the nearby island where the town's elite spend leisurely summers in small cottages, playing golf and doing their best to ignore the lingering effects of the Great Depression and the mounting specter of World War II. As Tommy grows, he begins to recognize that his idyllic world isn't quite as perfect as it seems.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Percolating just beneath its shimmering surfaces are racism, anti-Semitism, class resentment, drug abuse, adultery and other causes and symptoms of adult unhappiness — some of which Tommy will encounter again as an adult in a sequel, "To the Sargasso Sea" (1987).
After nearly two decades of being out of print, "Testing the Current" was published in a new edition Jan. 8 by New York Review Books. The 79-year-old author, a former editor at William Morrow & Co. who won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism as the editor of the Washington Post's Book World, is working on a new novel. Printers Row Journal caught up with McPherson for a phone interview from his home in Washington. Here's an edited transcript.
Q: It must be gratifying to have the book back before the public after so many years.
A: Yes, it's extremely gratifying. I could say I'm thrilled, but that doesn't seem like quite the right word. Amazed is more like it.
Q: In an afterword for the new edition, D.T. Max floats the idea that your novel came along just when readers had grown tired of postmodern fiction. Later, he says, your book was seen as sort of old-fashioned, and now we're ready for it again. Do you buy the idea that for everything there is a season, including books?
A: I think it's probably true. Fortunately, books never die, exactly. If there's still a copy around, somebody may read it. I remember going to the public library when I was young, pulling out these totally obscure books and as often as not, finding something interesting.
Q: In what ways did your background as a critic who had also worked in the publishing world prepare you — or maybe inhibit you — for the writing of "Testing the Current"?
A: Well, of course being a critic did help prepare me, because I was always reading and thinking about novels, but I didn't think of it as preparing me to write. I thought of it as preparing me to read. If anything, my experience in publishing did not encourage me to write. I saw what happens to most books, which is that they're published and then they disappear.
When I was editing Book World in the '70s, there were 40,000 trade books or more published every year, and you can't possibly deal with all of those books. When I was in publishing, I would spend three quarters of my time pulling the book out of the writer, and then the last quarter preparing them for an anticlimax. I'd say, "On publication, you'll probably get a call from me, and nothing else is liable to happen. Bells aren't going to be ringing." I always thought it was better not to have high expectations. Best to think, "Well, I got an advance" — and anything beyond that is gravy.
Q: Was it nerve-racking to send a book of your own out into the world to be judged by others?
A: Yes, that inhibited me to some extent. But, you know, words have been my life. I've cared about words since I was a kid. I took a couple of creative writing courses in college; a few years back I found a story I'd written in college, and I could tell that I'd written it, even though it was really juvenile. Anyway, I stopped writing because I didn't think I had anything to say, really. And then when I was a critic at Book World, I was fortunate because I was the editor of the thing, and I could choose the books I wanted to review. Generally speaking, I didn't review books that didn't interest me. There was no reason I should pan a first novel that nobody was going to hear about, for example.
Of course, it's easier to write a harsh review, where you can be funny, than it is to write a favorable review, where you have to say what's good about a book and why it's good. So I didn't write a lot of negative reviews. I did write some, but they were by famous authors who couldn't possibly care. After I started writing "Testing the Current," I didn't want to edit Book World anymore, because I knew how hard it was to write a book, and I didn't want to criticize other books. And I didn't want other stories in my head, somehow.
Q: "Testing the Current" got great reviews.
A: Yes, they were amazing. I did get one negative review, and it was by Robertson Davies, in the Washington Post. Actually I don't think he'd read the book. He said it was a novel about a kid who loves golf, and that's not quite what it's about.
Q: What was the genesis of the book?
A: The idea came to me one morning in Washington between Christmas and New Year's in 1977. I remember I was standing on the corner of 18th and Q and New Hampshire Avenue, where the three streets come together. I was waiting to cross the street, and I just saw this woman teeing off on the golf course. I saw the river in the distance, I saw the leaves on the trees, I saw the dew on the grass, every detail. And then it was as if the camera was panning back — is that what cameras do? — and I realized that this was being seen by a kid sitting on the steps of the country club. It sounds weird, but there was something sacred about that moment, something luminous, so much so that I was kind of awed by it. It hit me with such intensity and clarity that I thought, "I have to write this down."
In two nights I wrote about 12 pages, and it was the beginning of the novel. It drifted off into incoherence, but I realized there was something in there, and so I kept working. I didn't know what I was doing. I referred to it as "my piece," and my daughter, who was about 14 then, said that when I stopped calling it "my piece" and started referring to it as a book, that's when my troubles began. It took me about five years to write it.
Q: To what extent are you Tommy MacAllister?
A: I was wondering when you'd come to that. Once, you know, that question would have bothered me greatly. It doesn't bother me at all now, because I guess I've grown up a little. When people asked whether the book was autobiographical, I didn't like it because I felt it detracted from what I had done. But it's a perfectly natural question.
Q: It's also a compliment, in that the story is so detailed and seems so real.
A: Yes, someone who used to take care of me when I was a little kid, a lady named Donna, called me up. She said she'd read my book and remembered, clearly, the explosion in the plant where three men were killed. Well, as far as I knew, it never happened! I called my brother and he said no, he didn't remember anything like that. Anyway, I was quite flattered that this thing I had completely made up, I had made her believe that it actually happened.
Q: Your life as a young person did resemble Tommy's in many respects.
A: Sure, although it was my imagination playing on the reality. Grande Riviere is a lot like Sault Ste. Marie, where I was born and grew up. The thing I saw that first day, the tableau vivant of the woman on the golf course, I recognized that woman. She was this beautiful blond woman that I'd seen teeing off that day. The old rustic country club is more or less real. Some things I describe in the book, like those great Montrealer canoes, were really there; they belonged in the Smithsonian. And there were these islands, simply called "The Island," in the river across from the country club.
Q: You were from a family of means, I take it.
A: Yeah. I mean, we were well off. Fortunate, you know.
Q: And your family moved in circles, I'm guessing, in which the prejudices of the time among the elite — attitudes toward poor people, blacks, Jews, President Roosevelt and so forth — were in the water, so to speak.
A: Yes, they were the assumptions of that world. It was not questioned. The kid does begin to question things, though.
Q: The first time that happens in the novel, in fact, is when he realizes that his mother has not told him the truth about her age.
A: Yes, he believed she was 22. (Laughs.) If he'd given it any thought at all, he would have known she wasn't 22. When someone asks him how old his mother is, he realizes immediately that he'd been a fool. That's an important moment in the book.
Q: It's about him learning about the gaps between the world as it's been presented to him and the world as it actually is. You would have had a similar sense, when you were a kid, of the way things didn't quite add up.
A: Sure. The sensibility of the kid in the book is more or less my sensibility at that age. And I hate to say this, because it is a novel, but my mother did tell me that she was 22 and that my father was 23. And there was a woman who lived next door to us who was a drug addict. And I thought it was fascinating! They lived in this great big house, and I remember being told I couldn't play there anymore, because I told my parents at dinner that she'd showed me the needles she stuck into herself. I just thought it was a great story. But sometimes I'm not sure what actually happened and what I imagined. My mother, who was an amazing woman and lived to be almost 100, read "Testing the Current," and I know she liked it because she ordered a bunch of copies to give to her friends. The one thing she said to me was, "I do wish you hadn't made your mother an adulteress." (Laughs.)
Q: An awfully good sport, your mother.
A: Absolutely. She didn't tell me this — my brother told me — but later on, she was playing bridge at the country club, and someone came over and said, "Well, Ruth, who was Lucien Wolfe?" — referring to a character that the mother in the book may have had an affair with. And my mother said, "I have no idea."
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
"Testing the Current"
By William McPherson, NYRB Classics, 352 pages, $15.95