TESTING THE CURRENT by William McPherson


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Among the summering rich of Detroit in 1939, all seems idyllic to young Tommy MacAllister, his mother's late baby and favorite, his older brothers' total admirer: Tommy's a good boy, a clean boy, a curious boy. He takes golf lessons at the club across the river from the island compound where his family has a house. He bursts with excitement at his brother David's announced engagement. He learns--or at least hears--the facts-of-life from one of the black boys on the club staff. Tommy is even allowed the bitter confidences of a sick, morphine-addicted dowager, Mrs. Slade, who takes a liking to him: she gives him intimations of decay and bad-living and envy--feelings which seem to have nothing to do with women like Tommy's mother. Yet what Tommy doesn't know is that his mother is all the while conducting a not-all-that-hidden liaison with one of the summer colony's bachelors. And so he only collects hints and clues about this tawdriness pre-consciously, as a slight disturbance in the flow of his world: Tommy's eyes stay doggedly innocent--but, as readers, we of course know better, seeing the ironic seaminess. Critic McPherson, in his debut novel, is content to play out this Jamesian device endlessly, without much resolution. Scenes of high-WASP society doings are often nicely drawn: there's a very funny, climactic scene in which, attired in tuxes and ball gowns, the adults make their way across the river to the club at night for a gala. . . all singing hymns! But the worm-in-the-apple device finally goes thin, with too much of the same inversion: whatever Tommy sees automatically means something far more than he can comprehend. And the result is an atmospheric, intelligent coming-of-age novel that's a bit too gimmicky (and ultimately too smirky) to be fully involving.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1984
Publisher: Simon & Schuster