Cheating at Canasta: William Trevor review
Still a master of the story
The landing of a new collection by Irish short-story writer William Trevor is a beguiling moment because, as he was born in 1928, the masterful supply we’re so accustomed to will inevitably cease. Trevor’s 17-year background as a wood sculptor has complemented the carving of his prose. He rarely leaves more behind him on the page than needs to stand there, and what is left is in mighty good shape. Trevor’s contribution to literature is already an agreed three-dimensional crevice that the dithering of this or any reviewer will not budge. Critically, as he has said of himself, he is “a short-story writer, who also writes the occasional novel, not the other way round.” There is nothing incidental about his short stories.
Writers mine his words the same way archeologists poke at and palpitate over a fragment of bone or jug, jabbed by the desire to figure out how he manages it.
In his new 12-story collection, Cheating at Canasta, we find the title story is a weaker strain than the opening story, The Dressmaker’s Child, which will ring the memory bells for those well versed in Ireland’s summer of moving statues in 1985. In a brilliant concoction, Trevor presents us with the disturbed child of a possessed single mother, who repeatedly hurls herself at passing cars. Cathal, a mechanic, has agreed to drive two smooching Spanish tourists – for 50 euros – to look at a holy statue purported to have once cried tears. On his return, his car strikes the notorious child and he does not stop. The ramifications hammer his life, as the mother of the child stalks him. We shudder because we know it’s not such an unlikely tale. We can hear the distant twittering about such marked women in villages across Ireland and/or random apartment buildings in Canada.
The people that populate Trevor’s stories and novels reflect principally his interest in the ordinary créatúrs of mostly Irish life and, on the other end of the scale, his Big House folk. In Cheating at Canasta, he’s convening mostly with unfortunates whose lives have been stunted by the interference or actions of others, or blistered by their own decisions or lack of them. Trevor probes their resolve, parachuting into the second half of their lives, while waving the torch back on the earlier defining moment that delivered them up to where they now stand. In his quietude, he gives us the telescope into such interesting and ordinary, commonly dark, lives.
His people are steadfast amid the change around them. Despite the odd hint of a latte or a woman buying an organic chicken, he maintains timelessness, vague on dates and place, reserving his precision where it’s warranted – to describe the particulars of a silence, or details of how, as they say in Ireland, a face might betray a body’s thinking. The daily accoutrements of life may have changed in Trevor’s stories, but the mystery and nuance of the human heart is unaffected by any calendar.
This time around, he’s not content only to stamp about in the usual swamp. We feel him straining his neck to bear witness to a younger generation many arms from his own. He manages this with varying degrees of success. He may not always accurately conjure the dialect and exchange between the young, but it matters not, because his stories add up in their own unique way and only a fool would dismiss such stories on the basis of a bit of duff dialogue. It does not take the wind out of them.
His lean succeeds specifically in the disturbing An Afternoon, where teenager Jasmin meets a predator she’s encountered on a telephone chat line. Trevor, on form, unravels how Jasmin innocently plods toward him and succumbs to the predator’s flattery. He also attacks the leech calmly from within as we watch him gradually route Jasmin toward his house. The reader is released from the worst, only when the predator’s sister – he’s on probation – catches him. The sister’s hysteria at the potential of what her brother might have done is particularly affecting, unveiling the complexity that families of such men must face. What’s remarkable about the story is the way Trevor can chart both the pedophile and the teenage girl so effectively that we’re given two distinct portraits, where many short stories might barely scrape one.
In Bravado, Trevor tackles the wanton and incidental violence of a binge-drinking-type night among youths, and the nuanced outcome, where a girl’s decision not to act results in a young man’s death.
A meddling sister ruins the marriage prospect of her clergyman brother in Faith and then finds his life irretrievably entwined with hers, as he witnesses her physical demise. Trevor imaginatively pokes around in their simplicity. His people do not leap back up, and this is what makes them interesting.
I did have the sense of a few stories fading in and out of each other, without sufficient strong fences between them, until I reread read them as a triptych (the same way we look at art) and found they informed one another. Afterward, the single fields around them in this collection – Men of Ireland, The Room, Folie à Deux – also shone more verdant.
An established visual artist once said to me that she looks at art not to find what she likes in it, but for what she does not know. I take a similar approach to William Trevor: I am not looking for what I know he can already give me as a reader, I am all ears for whatever there remains left for him to tell me.
October 13, 2007
CHEATING AT CANASTA
By William Trevor
Knopf Canada, 232 pages, $32