The News from Ireland & Other Stories, by William Trevor. New York: Viking. 286 pp. $16.95. In this case, at least, ``The News from Ireland'' is extremely good -- further evidence that novelist and television playwright William Trevor is also one of the finest short story writers at work today. If the Irish have long shown their genius for this particular genre, these 12 stories are practically an embarrassment of riches for Trevor, a native of County Cork who now lives in England.
Seven of the tales unfold in Ireland, the rest in England and Italy. The lengthy title story, set during the Irish famine of the 1840s, details the divide between Protestant and Roman Catholic that still tragically determines life (and death) in parts of Ulster today. Separate realities collide in other stories -- the hotel maid who falls in love with her employer's son, or the salesman of women's lingerie who aspires to become the Irish Mahler.
At least two acquaintances have recently told me they don't read Trevor's fiction because they don't like the people he writes about, a judgment that smacks as much of prejudice as aesthetics. Were they to read him, however, it's possible they might fall victim to what I believe is one of Trevor's (and any good writer's) especial gifts: that of making us care about people we don't especially care for. As it is, Trevor is particularly good at writing about both the diminished Anglo-Irish gentry and the provincial Irish petit bourgeois: the small town merchants, hoteliers, and managers who favor golf over hurling.
There is a temptation in reviewing Trevor simply to admire his consummate craftsmanship: the Chekhovian gift of rendering an entire character by one salient detail, or the O. Henry-like knack of hanging a tale upon a single artifact. Trevor is also good with smells, able to evoke a World War II Irish provincial town primarily by whiffs, scents, and stench.
Novelist John Fowles has written that the question of Trevor's Irish roots vs. his English residence is incidental to his stories, which are ultimately international. Be that as it may, I found the strongest pieces here to be those set on his native turf. Venice and Florence are lovingly presented in two stories, but somehow these, and those set in England, don't always grip one as firmly as the Irish tales. ``I was not long here,'' says the English governess of the title story, ``before I observed that families and events are often seen historically in Ireland.'' That same abiding sense of history also helps to inform Trevor's vision of contemporary Ireland, giving it an additional gravity.
Frank O'Connor (whose fiction, like Trevor's, appeared regularly in The New Yorker) held that human loneliness was the proper subject of the short story writer. Certainly it is a major preoccupation of these stories, which detail various failed relationships, leaving more than one Trevor character to ponder the way things might have been. A middle-aged Irish woman chats with a childhood girlfriend met by chance in the cathedral of Siena: ``Some instinct tells her as they stand there among the tourists that their friendship in its time went deeper than the marriages they have mentioned.'' The wealth of such sad wisdom is yet another reason to pick up these stories.