Magazine | May 28, 2018, Issue

A Master

(Stephen Hird)
Last Stories, by William Trevor (Viking, 224 pp., $26)

William Trevor (1928–2016) was a writer well known in England and his native Ireland, author of a dozen novels and many dozen short stories. I first encountered him unawares in the pages of The New Yorker (all subscribers read it for the cartoons, but some occasionally read more). The story described a group of young people going home from a Dublin club at closing time. The showiest guy beats up another, unsuspecting kid, not in their group, in order to impress the girl he is escorting. But the next day’s paper reveals that the victim, who had a weak heart, died from the assault. His killer, acquitted of murder but convicted of a lesser offense, is sentenced to eleven years in prison. In time, the killer’s girlfriend admits to herself that she had been pleased by his show of bravado, and takes to visiting the dead boy’s grave.

Uncharacteristically for a journalist, I forgot the byline of the author, but I remembered the story. Even though it was short and the prose was lean, everyone who appeared in it, however fleetingly — the victim (he had been relieving himself when he was attacked); an old lady, in whose yard the crime occurred; all the youths (two other boys and another girl, in addition to the principals); the main girl’s father; an Indian shopkeeper suspicious of rowdy club kids — was characterized. There was no human wallpaper in the story, instead a frieze of 3-D figures.

Then a smart friend told me to read William Trevor, and I picked up a collection, Selected Stories, of 48, published over 15 years. There I found my first Trevor story, and so many more equally well done. I was astonished by his batting average, and by his slugging percentage. Most of the stories were hits, and all the hits were for extra bases.

I am not a Gaelophile, or at least not consistently. Half the time I marvel at the amount of good work to have come out of such a small place (who reads the literature of New Jersey?); half the time I add to myself: and they know it. A stiff dose of Trevor will allow you to think of yourself as, if not a lover of Ireland, then a short-order specialist. Trevor’s knowledge of the country of his birth seems encyclopedic. He writes about Catholics, and Protestants of various kinds; prosperous and not; countrymen and city folk. Moving away — he went to England in the 1960s — may have given him clarity of vision. So may the fact that he seems to have been a relatively late bloomer; he wanted at first to be a sculptor, and was unhappy enough with his first novel to disown it. The fact that he was raised in the Church of Ireland (the Irish branch of the Anglican Communion) may also have helped his writing; history’s losers have the luxury of watching the passing parade without having to fret any longer about their place in it.

Some of the Selected Stories touched directly on Ireland’s feral politics. In one, a troubled young boy imagines that a girl comes to kiss him in his family’s apple orchard; he believes she is dead, and a saint (though the name he gives her is on no church’s calendar). Unfortunately for the boy, his family is Orange, of deepest dye. They find his delusion so disturbing that they send for a “hard man” from Belfast, who murders him. Another story, involving hard men on the other side, depicts another lost young man, slightly older, who has gone to England to work. He falls in with terrorists who persuade him to leave a gym bag with a bomb in London. At the last moment, in a surge of moral heroism, he drops it, unexploded, into the Thames.

But most of the stories, though rooted in their context, depict situations that could happen anywhere. A papal visit to Ireland empties a neighborhood, leaving a Protestant friend to house-sit for absent Catholics (context). Two young burglars working the street tie up the house-sitter, then enjoy a spree with some easily impressed girls, worrying all the while that the man, who got a look at them, might be able to ID them. Is “the nerve to kill,” they ask as the story ends, “something you acquired”? — a thought that may occur to killers, and some non-killers, everywhere.

Two clergymen, one Church of Ireland, the other RC, meet after the funeral of the former’s gardener. The Protestant suddenly turns over a copy of a newspaper he had been reading because the front page was emblazoned with an account of a priestly sex scandal, and he wishes not to offend or embarrass his opposite number. The context is layered on with a trowel: The newspaper is the Irish Times, Ireland’s post-Protestant broadsheet. “Time was, a priest in Ireland wouldn’t read the Irish Times,” says the Catholic. “But we take it in now.” But as the two Christians talk, they realize they are bound together by the waning of both their faiths — a phenomenon that is happening throughout the Western world.

And always there is the profusion of individuals, sometimes almost bursting to get out: In one story about a wife’s love affair, there are two boys, ages ten and eight; we are told, of a lunch, that the younger will eat no yogurt “because someone had told him it was sour milk.” Just what an eight-year-old would be told, and how (ew!) he would react.

Last Stories collects ten more Trevors, all but one published in various magazines since 2008. Is it churlish to say there was a falling off? When I think about these stories after reading them, I can recall interesting things. A woman who was forced in her youth to give up an illegitimate child for adoption comes years later, with her female companion, to watch her offspring, now a beautiful girl, from afar. All is ruined when the companion, evidently the birth mother’s lover, reveals the secret. In another story, a second wife tells a first wife of their husband’s death. They had been childhood friends before the man came to them, and between them. The second wife wants to reconnect; the first angrily refuses, then thinks, Was friendship “the better thing”?

But little here gripped me at the moment of contact. I had to skim over most of the new stories, only a month after reading them, to recall their shape, whereas I remembered half a dozen of the old batch even after a decade. Too many of the new ones are set in England, maybe. Some writers thrive on the foreign or the fantastic, but others need to be Antaeus. Two of the last stories had the old effect on me. In “The Crippled Man,” a rural Irish family drama is observed by two Eastern European itinerant workmen, probably Romany. “‘Are ye Polish?’ asked the crippled man. They said they were. Sometimes they said that, sometimes they didn’t, depending on what they had previously ascertained about the presence of other Polish people in a locality. They were brothers, although they didn’t look like brothers. They were not Polish.” Yet this shifty silent pair proceeds with great tact. And in “Giotto’s Angels,” a simple-minded man lives in a warehouse, supporting himself as a picture restorer. A hooker goes home with him, falls for him a bit, but robs him anyway. He paints on, knowing “that only angels were his solace.”

One of the characters in the current volume “read the novels that time’s esteem had kept alive, and judged contemporary fiction for herself.” Trevor clearly read and judged so, and profited by it, over a long and productive career. His tone is straightforward, torqued only by occasional light irony. His only trick is the double line break, marking a shift of time or point of view. He carries the realism of the 19th century into the 20th, and the 21st. So what if he went from twice Ty Cobb to late Alex Rodriguez? There are worse fates: never being great at all; never being intermittently so. I may give Last Stories another shot of concentration, but not until after rereading Selected Stories. Meanwhile, back to The New Yorker.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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