To the Sargasso Sea by William McPherson (Simon & Schuster: $18.95; 491 pp.)

July 26, 1987|John Rechy | Rechy teaches fiction in the master's degree program at USC. His next novel, "Marilyn's Daughter," is forthcoming from Carroll & Graf.

Few first novels in recent years have been more lavishly praised than William McPherson's "Testing the Current"; "breathtaking," "a piece of art," "a permanent contribution," "Proustian." The author himself attributed his entry into his book as "to a vision." It became difficult to view this as "a first novel" because McPherson is a mature man of credentials: ex-senior editor of a major publishing house, past editor of a leading book-review supplement, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for "distinguished criticism."

"Testing the Current" was a very good first novel, daring in its ambition, especially at a time when minimalism threatens to reduce literature to the size of a small television screen. McPherson bravely captured an exact nuance in finely honed sentences. Subtle metaphorical meanings added resonance to his rich narrative.

Everything about this new book indicates its intention to be "grand." Viewed on that high level, it is disappointing. McPherson still writes wonderfully. He can create an impeccable effect: " 'Life imitates art,' he replied, gazing out the window at the blur of the street." Virtually every page displays his talent. But he is flirting with superficiality, artistic preciousness.

An effusion of details almost drowns the narrative. The prose is at times lofty, with sluggish digressions about everything. An overlay of symbols cloaks it. Even a lizard mentioned in the epigraph finds its way into the book.

The novel is a sequel to "Testing the Current." Eight-year-old Tommy MacAllister is now 40-year-old Andrew MacAllister. Precocity does not age well. Tommy has grown, not matured. His fascination with trivialities has become in Andrew--and apparently in McPherson--a fascination with "surfaces." "I like surfaces," he declares. "Always another surface beneath it."

In 1971, Andrew is in London with his wife, Ann, to attend the opening of his second play. He has a mild affair with Daisy, who was "an older woman" when he was a child. He returns to the United States to pursue a New York production--"Joe Papp seemed interested." He and Ann travel to Bermuda. Near the Sargasso Sea, with its intimations of uncontrollable currents and mystery, Andrew has a brief liaison with a young man, an encounter so breathlessly narrated, so enormously denied and affirmed that it is as if Andrew were the first man ever to have such: "He felt suddenly, briefly sick . . . how could he imagine doing such a thing; but he did. . . . Yes, he was stoned, but he knew what he was doing. . . . He must be crazy."

A master of detailing, Proust discovered myriad reflections in a child's yearning for a bedtime kiss from his mother. Exact details converted his longing into a moving epic of suspense, redemption. That passage is alluded to in this book, dismissively, as if to obviate comparison. McPherson's relentless detailing of "surfaces" assumes a plateau of sameness. It is as if a camera were roaming a landscape with such terrible slowness that the reality of the whole blurs. He lingers to the point of stasis. A long visit to a museum is discussed, at length, immediately after it has occurred, but with no perception added. Tiny epiphanies are reiterated.

Attention to surfaces becomes odd: Everyone "looks younger" than he or she is--even a ship captain who appears briefly. There are more descriptions of pearls than in any other book not on the subject. Yet it is as if Andrew's play materialized a hit, only to be praised at parties.

The dialogue abounds in snobbish chat--"You're not eating your caviar. It's Beluga"--and portentous artificiality: "Show me an idea that doesn't begin in 'sex and violence,' " says a young man. Andrew answers: "It seems likely that you might not recognize it if I did. . . . We must all transcend our beginning. The evidence that ideas exist is all around us." This occurs during Andrew's opening-night party.

Like Tommy, Andrew is still spying. A highlight of the book is ambushed by the author's approach. Looking from a window through a telescope, Andrew sees in another building a woman and two men in a configuration of copulations. He discovers they are making a pornographic movie. A grand opportunity to explore a distanced man--but all we know is what Andrew saw.

Tommy seemed to be collecting evidence for a judgment on his world of privilege. He remembered an explosion in his father's plant, and the Depression that did not affect him. During the time of Vietnam, Andrew is still collecting evidence. Once he joined a peace march, and he "still thought he'd be a socialist, if he could keep his Chinese lamps."

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