New collection by Nobel Prize favorite generates talk
by Rob Neufeld
Ladbrokes, a world leader in online betting, had had Mo Yan at 8:1 on Oct. 4. Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami, a perennial favorite, had been a 3:1 pick. And Irish writer William Trevor, widely recognized as the greatest living short story writer, had posted a phenomenal rise from 100:1 to 8:1 odds, based on a rush of bets.
Trevor is the author of 18 novels and 19 volumes of short stories, many of which have been winners of or finalists in the running for Great Britain’s two top awards, the Man Booker Prize and the Whitbread (now called the Costa) Book Award.
His latest volume, “Selected Stories,” just out in paperback, brings together stories from his last four collections. It is the subject of a Book Discussion X discussion, Nov. 15 at Accent on Books.
A pro con
Betting—in a manner of speaking—is the subject of Trevor’s story, “Against the Odds”—about a confidence woman, going by the name of Mabel Kincaid, who ducks into a town south of Belfast and hooks a widowed turkey farmer.
When the farmer, named Blakely, shows up for their having-given-things-time appointment two months after he’s written her a check in trust, he waits an hour, “believing that against the odds there might somehow be an explanation.”
That sad event occurs two paragraphs from the end of Trevor’s O. Henry-type story, which differs from the old master’s tales in that it applies shadowy transitions rather than bold highlights.
In the next paragraph, we learn that Blakely still harbors a spark of optimism about his belle, and it is not unlike the optimism that the Irish hold onto in the wake of the short-lived cease-fire with which the story had started.
The last paragraph features another twist—not a dropped shoe, but something hanging in the air.
All this talk about the ending leaves out the pleasure of the previous 15 pages: the very believable progress of the courtship/con; the roots of Mrs. Kincaid’s compulsive behavior; and dour Blakely’s transformation.
To read a Trevor story is to identify with people in whom wavering morality, experience of hurt, and flickering grace mix.
As a man whose youth had been shaped by his father’s frequent change of hometown, Trevor has observed many types. Like O. Henry, his notables are the non-notable.
Reading today’s news while reading Trevor’s story, “Gilbert’s Mother” has me thinking about the mother, Rosalie Manion.
Her story begins, “On November 20th 1989, a Monday, in an area of South London not previously notable for acts of violence, Carol Dickson, a nineteen-year-old shop assistant, was bludgeoned to death between the hours of ten-fifteen and midnight.”
Though Rosalie had heard her grown, loner son come in from his wanderings earlier than that that night, she worries, as she always worries when a crime is reported, that he might be the culprit. She knows, more than anyone else, that he’s odd.
As a child, he’d refused to do school work. Psychiatric hospitals and social workers had simply noted that he was boring. “Talks excessively about photocopying,” one reported.
His father couldn’t and didn’t love him, and Gilbert’s unnerving detachment and intensity of observation caused his parents’ divorce, Rosalie feels.
In essence, Rosalie is enslaved to her dread and to her need for constant vigilance of Gilbert. “Her role was only to accept,” the story concludes. “No one would ever understand the mystery of his existence, or the unshed tears they shared.”
What brand of story is this? It’s not a story of a parent who protects a criminal son. Odds are Gilbert is not a criminal. It’s not a story about a struggle to understand an illness; or about the grace note of loyalty and love.
It’s a story about the fixed place that mystery inhabits in our lives.
Port in a storm
Different scenes—from multiple views and characters’ memories—overlap in Trevor’s fiction; and plots shift perversely. Sometimes the action can be as plain as peeling a potato; and, at other times, as seismic as a treachery; or a vow of love.
Such is life. And such is fiction, unless you want to represent it as sitcom shtick or comic book heroism.
Loyalty is, in fact, the compass point in many of Trevor’s stories, despite the problematic impression “Gilbert’s Mother” leaves; and loyalty often equates to love.
In “Death of a Professor,” an old professor’s beautiful younger wife hides from him the newspaper obit that a spiteful prankster had written about him. The professor goes to a party where all of the other professors—a satirized, poisonous bunch—do know, and it’s a blow.
The old professor’s figuring out of the misdeed—and his adoration of his wife—reminds her how much she loves him for his wisdom, a quality separate from competitive excellence. “It is the wedding of their differences that protects them, steadfast in the debris of the storm.”
Yes, society can be quite a hunger game in Trevorland, but his stories often enough shift tone to make you feel as if you’re in different universes.
Sometimes, they are as hilarious as a Roald Dahl tale; or as tough as a Sean O’Casey play.
In “The Mourning,” a simple lad wanting a bigger life in London, gets caught up first in the prejudice against low-wage Irishmen, and then in a terrorist plot. The turning point in his fate as bomb-carrying hero versus hometown clod turns on words he remembers his da saying.
“A Friendship” begins with ten- and eight-year old brothers pouring concrete into their father’s golf bag. The father is a tyrant to his wife, whose life is made sweet by her best friend Margy, an instigator. There’s going to be a clash.
Loyalty cleaves in both meanings of the word here. It clings on one hand, and severs on the other. No wonder forgiveness is such a virtue; everyone’s got blood on their hands, and sometimes they don’t mean to have caused it.
Selected Stories by William Trevor (Penguin trade paper, Sept. 27, 2011, 576 pages, $18)
Book Discussion X meets to discuss “Selected Stories” by William Trevor at Accent on Books, Accent on Books, 854 Merrimon Ave., 7 p.m., Thurs., Nov. 15. Call 252-6255.
STORIES TO BE DISCUSSED
Against the Odds
A Bit on the Side
Cheating at Canasta
Death of a Professor
The Dressmaker’s Child
The Hill Bachelors
Men of Ireland
The Piano Tuner’s Wife