It was something of a surprise to the literary world when William McPherson published his first novel, Testing the Current, in 1984. Not that Bill was exactly an unknown—a former book editor at Morrow in NYC, founding editor of The Washington Post’s Book World section (and later a Post columnist), and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism in 1977, Bill seemed to know everyone on the East Coast who had ever written a noteworthy paragraph. At Book World, he opened the doors to coverage of contemporary poetry and even recruited people like me, Michael Lally, and Doug Lang as frequent reviewers. His creative and generous spirit really set him apart from other members of the literary establishment. Though he’d published some poems in The New Yorker and elsewhere, Testing the Current was to be a turning point in his life. He would, eventually, permanently leave the reviewing stand for the stage itself. (above: William McPherson, 1987. Photo (c) Nancy Crampton)
Maybe if the book had bombed, Bill would have remained primarily a journalist, but Testing the Current was met with the kind of reception writers fantasize about. In my copy of the original, I stuck three of the reviews that greeted the novel’s appearance. Russell Banks, in the NY Times, opens his piece with this: “William McPherson’s first novel is an extraordinarily intelligent, powerful and, I believe, permanent contribution to the literature of family, childhood and memory.” People proclaims that Testing the Current is “a beautiful first novel that provides a sharp, glowing portrait of a Midwestern town on the eve of World War II. McPherson’s loving attention to detail and the ... funny, moving point of view keep the writing constantly fresh and involving.” USA Today says the novel “...is brilliant. In places it is absolutely breathtaking.” Testing the Current tells the story of a boy of around eight years old named Tommy MacAllister. Bill followed up on Tommy’s story three years later with To the Sargasso Sea, also well-received.
Ever the adventurer, Bill headed to Europe in 1989 to witness firsthand the fall of the Communist empire, winding up on and off for most of the next six years in Rumania, where he became something of a national celebrity. While that intriguing and amazing sharp turn resulted in some first-rate reporting for several journals, it left his readers still awaiting the third novel in the MacAllister saga. What’s more, the first two novels had long been out of print. (right: Michael Dirda & William McPherson, Politics & Prose Bookstore, DC, 26 Jan 2012)
But, now, thanks to New York Review Books and D.T. Max (who wrote the Afterword), Testing the Current, originally published by Simon & Schuster, is back in print. And last night at Politics & Prose Bookstore in D.C., a multitude of Bill’s friends and fans turned out for a Q&A between Bill and the eminent writer and critic Michael Dirda, all to mark this significant comeback of an American classic.
Bill McPherson signs a book for DC artist Susan Campbell, Politics & Prose, 26 Jan 2012.