I’ve mentioned before that Bookman and I subscribed to the New York Review of Books Classics Book Club. I had every intention of reading each month’s book when it arrived but what’s the phrase? The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Yup. So it is that it is March and I just finished January’s book, Testing the Current by William McPherson. His first novel, it was published in 1984 when McPherson was 51. He was no literature newbie though. McPherson was the founding editor of the Washington Post’s Book World and had won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Critics don’t necessarily make good novelists, but McPherson does not disappoint.
Testing the Current takes place in a town in northern Michigan called Grand Riviere. During the summer all those who move in the upper social circles retreat to “The Island” which is actually a few small islands in the middle of the river not far from town. There is a country club with a golf course. The same people, more or less, are there year after year. The “Indians,” who used to own the area are charged with opening and closing the houses for the season, cooking, watching the children, and rowing people from house to house and to the main island where the club is. Meanwhile the club bar and kitchen is run by Ophelia (a “Negro” but you weren’t supposed to say that out loud so as not to call attention to her unfortunate condition) and Ophelia’s family. The rich white people don’t pay any attention to the blacks or the Native Americans unless it is to chastise them for not doing their job or patronize them for being foolish.
The year is 1939 and while most people are still struggling through the depression, the people who visit The Island do all they can to block out its existence. It creeps in now and then though as it is noted who has come down in the world and no longer gets invited to the fancy parties because no one wants to embarrass them for no longer being rich.
There isn’t much in the way of plot. The book covers a year with some flashbacks — parties, birthdays, engagements, holidays, a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary — nothing out of the ordinary. What makes the book so wonderful is that it is told from the point of view of eight-year-old Tommy. One of the things I find most annoying about books told from a child’s perspective is that so often, the voice is too old and the observations too adult. But McPherson pulls off Tommy’s voice and view perfectly. Not once was I jolted with the thought that an eight-year-old would never say/do/think that. The voice is so authentic it is almost painful. How does that work, you ask? Well, through Tommy’s eyes the adult reader can figure out exactly what is going on and Tommy’s innocence and confusion and struggle to understand the adult world is hard to watch sometimes.
Adults tell lies to children all the time and think they are protecting them or just having a little fun. But when Tommy learns that his mother isn’t really twenty-two he is devastated, not because she is older, but because she did not tell him the truth. Tommy suspects there are other things he is not being told the truth about, like Lucien Wolfe and why he is always visiting Tommy’s mother when his father is away.
And of course there are all the things adults know but don’t want to talk about such as Mrs. Slade being a morphine addict. When Tommy learns about this he is curious, wants to know more but he gets scolded for talking about it at dinner in front of guests:
‘If nobody talks about it, how does everybody know about it?’ Tommy asked. ‘She doesn’t wear a sign.’ But he knew what his brother meant. He meant it was one of those things they weren’t supposed to talk about, like Mrs. Hutchins’ twitching in the bar, as if not mentioning it meant it didn’t happen.
But Tommy likes Mrs. Slade and likes visiting her because she talks to him like a person and not a child. He also likes Mrs. Steer who talks to him about art and books and real things. But he doesn’t like Mrs. Appleton who is a nasty gossip and not very nice to him. She is also terrified of cats. So one day when she is sitting on the porch at the club gossiping with her friends, Tommy picks up one of the cats that live at the club and drops it in Mrs. Appleton’s lap because he wanted to see what would happen.
There is much in the book that is dark because the reader knows the adult world; we see the cruelty and hypocrisy. But Tommy is eight and while he catches glimpses he doesn’t generally understand. For Tommy, there are many moments of childhood delight like when he gets a smaller version of the roll top desk his father has in his office for Christmas. It has a drawer that locks and he is thrilled to be able to put his most prized treasures in it. There are also moments of wonder:
And 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, more 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.
And there are also moments of kindness and generosity that only a child might be able to manage. For his eighth birthday Tommy’s mother gave him a beautiful kaleidoscope, a treasure. But at the end of the summer Tommy gifts it to Ophelia, the black woman who runs the kitchen at the club. He does it because she is always kind to him and watches after him and because he knows she works hard and people don’t always treat her very kindly. It is a touching moment that made me want to hug Tommy.
I could go on about all the details, all the clashes between Tommy’s childhood world and the adult world, and what the adults are and aren’t doing, and the broader context in which the story is set. It is a beautiful book, one to be read slowly for best flavor and enjoyment. NYRBs has done right for January. February’s book is something entirely different, An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman. I should be starting in on it very soon.