Testing the Current  cover
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Publication date:
January 8, 2013
NYRB Classics

Growing up in a small upper Midwestern town in the late 1930s, young Tommy MacAllister is scarcely aware of the Depression, much less the rumblings of war in Europe. For his parents and their set, life seems to revolve around dinners and dancing at the country club, tennis dates and rounds of golf, holiday parties, summers on the Island, and sparkling occasions full of people and drinks and food and laughter. But curious as he is and impatient to grow up, Tommy will soon come to glimpse the darkness that lies beneath so much genteel complacency: hidden histories and embarrassing poor relations; the subtle (and not so subtle) slighting of the “help”; the mockery of President Roosevelt; and “the commandment they talked least about in Sunday school,” adultery.

In Testing the Current William McPherson subtly sets off his wide-eyed protagonist’s perspective with mature reflection and wry humor and surrounds him with a cast of vibrant characters, creating a scrupulously observed portrait of a place and time that will shimmer in readers’ minds long after the final page is turned.

Testing the Current is the NYRB Classics Book Club selection for January 2013.


I can’t remember another novel which captures a Midwestern childhood—that mysterious unwritten-about world… . It could have been my town and my life.
—Diane Johnson

The dawning of the world’s hard truths upon this boy’s consciousness is depicted with a subtlety that…is something close to breathtaking…We have here a book that looks for all the world like a piece of art.
—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

William McPherson’s first novel is an extraordinary intelligent, powerful and, I believe, permanent contribution to the literature of family, childhood and memory….From the first sentence of Testing the Current to the last, there is not one false note, one forced image. It is a novel written with great skill, and with love. It’s what most good first novels aspire to be.
—Russell Banks, The New York Times