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The Dark Corners of Daily Beings

William Trevor
Beyond Fads: Short-story writer William Trevor transcends literary trends.

Photo by Jerry Bauer

In the stories of William Trevor, quite ordinary characters face extraordinary tribulations

By Allen Barra

WILLIAM TREVOR, the greatest living writer of short stories in the English language, has managed over the last 30-odd years to tread down every avenue concerned with modern literature without ever once seeming faddish.

Politics: In "Attracta," perhaps his best-known story, a schoolteacher in Belfast finds his life irrevocably changed by a story in a newspaper about a woman whose army officer husband is murdered, his head returned to her in a plastic bag inside a biscuit tin.

Fantastic Naturalism: In "Lost Ground," from his new collection, After Rain, a Protestant farmer boy is kissed by what is apparently the ghost of a female Catholic spirit, beginning a chain of events that ends in tragedy.

Abnormal Psychology: In "Gilbert's Mother," also from After Rain, a mother comes to believe that her oddball son is actually a murderer and rapist. ("Her role was only to accept. ... No one would ever understand the mystery of his existence, or the unshed tears they shed.")

Not that Trevor dwells on these aspects. The point in "Attracta" isn't politics but the effect politics has on people's lives. "Lost Ground" never tells us whether or not the farm boy's vision is real, but details the repercussions of his vision. We never actually find out if the son in "Gilbert's Mother" is a murderer and rapist, only that the mother's guilt impels her to take the blame for the failure of his life.

Trevor never seeks out the melodramatic or even the dramatic effect. His sensibility, seemingly influenced by Chekhov, prefers the pursuit, capture and dissection of the ordinariness of life, and his method, entirely his own, places his ordinary characters in extraordinary situations, where a lightning flash gives a sudden illumination of some dark corner of their personality.

We aren't always certain of what the characters' reactions are--they aren't always sure themselves. Lives are touched, changed; the world moves on. Often, the characters are not even aware of how incidents changed their lives until years later.

The lonely, repressed spinsters, salesmen and shopkeepers who inhabit Trevor's stories resemble what people in Hitchcock movies would be like if they didn't get the clues. In "A Bit of Business," two punkish, smalltime thieves rob an old man in his home. Neither has the stomach for killing him, and for 10 astonishingly suspenseful pages, they debate whether or not to go back and finish the job. The story leaves "both of them wondering if the nerve to kill was something you acquired"--and, of course, leaves us wondering the same thing.

In "Timothy's Birthday," an elderly couple living in the country prepare for the annual birthday visit from their son. The son is gay, a fact that is revealed elliptically, mostly by the parents' refusal to acknowledge it. Sick of the ritual and the pretense, he talks his new lover--a bisexual young tough--into visiting his parents and making his excuses for him.

The possibility of some act of horror pervades the birthday party, although the crime turns out to be nothing more than the theft of a small silver ornament. The parents' refusal to acknowledge the theft is an echo of their refusal to see their son as he is and not as they want him to be.

book cover

TWO THINGS in particular startle about these and all of Trevor's stories. First, the incidents that happen in them touch off surprising, almost shocking, depths of emotion and passion. Second, those emotions are rendered in a manner that's invariably elegant and, if not sympathetic, at least empathetic.

Trevor the writer never raises his voice; there are no speeches, no pronouncements, no easy lessons or morals to be learned. A William Trevor story invariably recalls Yeats' dictum that "Rhetoric is heard. Poetry is overheard."

Like most great writers of English prose, Trevor is Irish, and no writer of his generation, not even Edna O'Brien, has benefited more from becoming Anglo-Irish. From the land and literature of his birth he seems to have learned passion and pathos; from his adopted country, intellectual curiosity and a scrupulous fairness in the observation of people.

Some critics have accused Trevor of being an omnipotent narrator, albeit one with an archly humorous tone. The charge is perhaps true, but you never get the feeling (as you often do with an equally great writer such as O'Brien) that Trevor does not allow his characters a decent chance for happiness. He gives his people all the help he possibly can. The rest is up to them--and by extension, us.

After Rain by William Trevor; Viking; 213 pages; $22.95 cloth

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From the November 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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