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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, May 15, 2017

The failings of William McPherson's Testing the Current

Skimmed the remaining chapters and finished reading William McPherson's 1984 coming-of-age novel, Testing the Current, with not much further enlightenment. It's obvious that what he was working toward in this novel was a view of the complex society of an insular, clannish, conservative Midwest culture entirely from the young protagonist's POV, so there are many hints and innuendoes about scandals and tensions and racism and bigotry but we get only glimpses of these, none is fully developed or even clarified. I guess that can work and could have worked if this novel were shorter and more focused, but as it stands it's a novel in search of a plot. I'll give just one example: toward the end, the protagonist, Tommy, speaks with young (teenage?) black man who works at the country club; Tommy notes that he talks to the man while sitting on the grass because the man is not allowed to sit on the club porch. OK, does McPh make any more of this or develop it? Then the man tells Tommy in crude and graphic detail about  sexual encounter with a young woman. Tommy listens, absorbs - but then what? Nothing. Not to re-write someone else's novel, but what would I say if I saw this in a writers' work group? For one thing, perhaps Tommy in innocence could ask an adult, maybe his dad or mom, about what he's heard from the man - and then could this have gotten the man fired? Disciplined? Could there be repercussions? Could Tommy wrestle with guilt and shame? These are the kinds of opportunities that abound throughout this novel, and McPherson capitalizes on none of them! The last events of the novel involve a 25th-anniversary party his parents throw at the country club. There are all kinds of potential for action and drama here - notably, there's a man present who most likely has been having an affair w/ Tommy's mother (it's all vague to us bcz everything comes to us from Tommy's limited viewpoint and understanding - the adult narrator never offers authority or clarification); so why doesn't Tommy blurt out something awkward and incriminating? Doesn't happen. Just ends w/ Tommy thinking that it was a wonderful party (even though he's overheard various nasty, drunken outbursts). In the very final scene Tommy dangles his legs in the current that flows among the islands of the summer retreat where the novel beings and (a year later - in novel time, not in my reading time) ends. That's a great metaphor not for this novel but for its failings: he's dangling in the current, not testing it at all.

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