As in all great short stories, from Chekhov to Carver, there is mystery and not a little menace in the stories of William Trevor—secrets so tangled and inexplicable that efforts to explain them with the language of psychology or sociology or history are either futile or absurd. This is not accidental, but part of the short story’s historical and generic tradition, for the form originated in primitive myth, which, by its very nature, was concerned with mystery, for which story was the only explanatory model available. Moreover, the short story is often concerned with the enigma of motivation.
This mystery of motivation is as true of Trevor's first collection The Day we Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories, 1967 as of his last collection forty years later, Cheating at Canasta, 2007. In honor of one of the two best short-story writers in the world today, I offer a few comments on the stories in that last collection. I only hope there will be another.
In “The Dressmaker’s Child,” Cahill, a nineteen-year-old Irish man takes a couple of young Spanish tourists, seeking a blessing on their marriage, to a statue that was once thought to shed miraculous tears. However, the miracle of the statue has since been discredited, and the Dublin man who told them about it was only lying to get them to buy him drinks. Cahill knows all this, but wants the fifty euro he charges to drive the couple out to the statue. On the way back, a young female child, who has a habit of doing such things, runs out in the road and into his car. Cahill does not stop.
When the child’s body is found in a quarry half a mile from her home, the mother, a dressmaker, who has borne the child out of wedlock, begins to stalk Cahill, hinting that she saw him hit the girl. Cahill imagines that he walked back to the site of the accident and carried the body of the child to the quarry, but he knows that it was the mother who has done this. The mother urges Cahill to leave his girlfriend and invites him to come home with her. Cahill, afraid, without knowing what he fears, cannot dismiss the connection between him and the dressmaker. When he tries to understand this, he is bewildered, but he knows that one day he will go to her. The story suggests that it is possible that death and guilt, as well as birth and love can unite two people.
Guilt, secrets, and obsession also dominate “Folie À Deux.” Wilby, a divorced man in his forties, is in Paris, indulging in his interest in rare stamps. At a café, he sees an employee who looks like a man named Anthony who Wilby knew as a boy, a man who disappeared years before and who everyone assumed was dead. Wilby recalls a significant event that has bound them together in guilt. Once the two boys, out of curiosity, put Anthony’s old dog Jerico in a small boat and pushed him out to sea, just to find out what he would do. They hear the dog howling and later see its body when it is washed up on shore.
Although this does not seem to affect Wilby so much, it profoundly changes Anthony, who becomes quieter and more withdrawn. Later when Wilby runs into Anthony again at school, he discovers that Anthony is even more remote and strange; Wilby does not befriend him again, even though he feels guilty about this. Like Cahill in “The Dressmaker’s Child,” Wilby’s guilt is muddled by bewilderment. When he goes back to the café and realizes that it is Anthony, Wilby knows that he will return to his own safe, tidy world, but this morning he likes himself less than he likes his childhood friend.
The mystery of motivation and secrets of the past also energize “The Room.” A forty-seven-year-old woman named Katherine is engaged in an affair, perhaps in revenge, for her husband’s involvement with a prostitute, who was murdered and for whom he was a suspect, nine years before. Katherine lied for her husband then, in partial repayment for her inability to have children, providing him with an alibi, although it seems quite clear that he did not kill the woman.
When the man with whom she is having an affair asks Katherine why she loves her husband, she says that no one can answer that question and, in a statement central to Trevor’s success with the short story, asserts that most often, people don’t know why they do things. For the nine years since the murder, she has not asked her husband about the girl, but knows that her alibi for him has given her release from any restraint. The story ends with her knowledge that the best that love can do is not enough, for what holds people together is often guilt, debt, secrets.
What makes people do what they do and the mysteries of what holds them together or tears them apart is also central to “Bravado.” Five young people are on the way home late at night—the leader Manning, his cohorts Donovan and Kilroy, Aisling, his girlfriend, and a second girl named Francie. When Dalgety, a boy they scorn as a geek, urinates in someone’s yard, Manning, who always likes to play the big fellow, knocks him down and kicks him. The next morning the boy is discovered dead. Donovan and Kilroy are sent to jail for eleven years, getting off easy, for they did not know that Dalgety had a weak heart.
Manning disappears, but writes to Aisling several years later, telling her he has changed. Aisling finishes school and gets a job but never marries. At Dalgety’s grave, she begs for forgiveness, for she knows that the beating was done to impress her, to deserve her love, and watching it she had felt a momentary pleasure. She sometimes thinks she will run away from the shadow of bravado that hangs over her, but she is also now a different person and feels that she belongs to where the act took place.
Guilt and the mysteries of the past have a wider compass in “Men of Ireland.” A fifty-two-year old man, Donal Prunty, returns to the small village in Ireland where he was born after having spent several years in England “on the street.” Prunty goes to the parish priest, Father Meade, for whom he served Mass when he was a child and tells him about hearing the old stories of priest abuse with other men--the “hidden Ireland.” When he accuses Father Meade of abusing him, the priest knows he is lying and wonders if he is confusing him with another priest, his brain addled because of methylated spirits. Although he insists that no finger has ever been pointed at a priest in this village, still he goes to a drawer and takes paper notes and gives to him.
After Prunty leaves, the priest does not blame him because you cannot blame a hopeless case, and he feels guilty for not being able to reach him as a boy as his mother has asked of him. He knows that no honorable guilt and no generous intent have made him give Prunty the money, but rather that he has paid for silence. He accepts that the petty offense of Prunty is minor beside the betrayal by the Church and the shamming of Ireland’s priesthood.
The inexplicable nature of love and human need dominate such stories as “An Afternoon,” in which a young girl meets a man in a chat room and then arranges to meet him in person. She obviously needs the attention of the man and seems to trust him, although the reader is suspicious of his thoughts, discovering gradually that he has met young women like this before. He is solicitous of the girl, winning a necklace for her in a carnival type game and giving her drinks.
However, his plans, whatever they are, are foiled, when his aunt, with whom he lives, drives up, telling him to remember that he is on probation. The girl goes home, and hears her mother and the man she lives with having a fight. In face of this, the girl, even though she now knows the man planned to take advantage of her, still thinks of him tenderly. She kisses the necklace he gave her and promises she will always keep it with her.
“The Children” begins with the perspective of Connie, a child of eleven, whose mother has just died. It then shifts to a woman named Teresa, forty-one, whose husband left her several years before. Two years later Robert, Connie’s father, asks Teresa to marry him. Connie takes her mother’s books up on the roof to read them, although it is really pretense, for she is too young to understand them. She worries that all her mother’s books will be sold, so she wants to know what every single one of them is about. Five days away from the wedding, Teresa comes to see Robert and they decide to cancel the wedding. Realizing that nothing is as tidy as they had thought, and that no rights cancel other rights, they both know they have been hasty and careless. Robert accepts that time will gather up the ends, and that his daughter’s honoring of a memory was love that mattered also.
"Cheating at Canasta" opens with a man named Mallory, an Englishman in his middle years, at Harry’s Bar in Venice, famous as a hangout of Ernest Hemingway. It has been four years since he was last here with his wife Julia, who is now afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease. As a last request, she has made him promise to go back to Harry’s, but he is not sure if this trip is really meaningful. However, when he hears an American man ask his younger wife why she is crying, he becomes interested in their quarrel. When they leave, he tells them the reason for his trip, feeling ashamed that he has come close to deploring this tiresome, futile journey. He recalls letting his wife win at canasta, even though she was not sure why she was happy when she won. As the couple leave, the man smiles, hearing his wife’s voice say that shame isn’t bad, nor is humility, which is shame’s gift.
These are not cultural examinations of either the old Ireland of legend or the new Ireland of the Celtic Tiger, but rather profoundly wise explorations of individual, yet universal, secrets and mysteries of the heart. Luminous, restrained stories, every one of them deserves to be read and reread, their motivations marveled at, their sentences savored. They fill the reader with awe at the complexity of the human experience and the genius of William Trevor.