Small gems from William Trevor

Subtlety and consolatory grace remain the hallmarks of Trevor's short stories

As a book critic, the three comments I hear most often are, "I don't have time to read books," "I don't like short stories," and "I only read nonfiction."

A possible rejoinder to all three is: Have you ever read William Trevor? His stories – many of which involve adultery, guilt, and longing – are marvels of craftsmanship in which whole lives are distilled into potently concentrated essences that can be easily quaffed in a sitting. Unlike novels, which the time-pressed may have to leave untouched for weeks between readings, Trevor's short stories, which run about 20 pages each, don't require keeping plots and characters straight over time.

Cheating at Canasta is Trevor's 12th collection in the 40 years since he published "The Day We Got Drunk on Cake." He's also written 13 novels. After decades at his craft, he's writing in top form, exploring misgivings and longings with subtlety and acuity. In fact, the first two of the 12 stories in this volume won O. Henry Awards.

The title story is about an Englishman named Mallory who revisits old haunts in Italy, including Harry's Bar in Venice, fulfilling a "last insistence" expressed by his wife as she slipped into dementia. Because Mallory is a faithful man, he "was here to honour a whim that would have been forgotten as soon as it was expressed." He is also a man who, when visiting his wife at her nursing home, cheated at Canasta so she could win. Dining alone, he overhears another couple arguing in English and reflects, "Marriage was an uncalculated risk ... the trickiest of all undertakings…."

"The Room" concerns a woman who unthinkingly provides a covering alibi when her husband is accused of murdering a young woman with whom, unbeknownst to her, he was having an affair. Nine years later, the loyal wife realizes that she's still plagued by "the nag of doubt." Wanting to see what deceit feels like, she has her own brief fling and wonders, "Was stealth an excitement still?" Although Trevor emigrated to England in 1954 and lives in Devon, most of his stories are set in contemporary Ireland, with characters who range from teens to elders. While many story collections suffer from repetitiveness when read in rapid succession, Trevor's scope is sufficiently broad to avoid this pitfall. The challenge here is getting one's bearings at the start of each story.

"An Afternoon" concerns a lonely adolescent who nearly succumbs to a "chatline" predator, while "Bravado" centers on a fatal, unprompted gang assault after leaving a club. The incident continues to haunt a young woman it was meant to impress, who guiltily remembers her pleasure in watching the attack and the alacrity with which she had embraced a false explanation "when what there was had been too ugly to accept."

In "At Olivehill," an elderly woman feels like "a stranger on her own land" when her sons turn their ailing farm into a golf course. "Old Flame" focuses on the persistence of jealousy as a 74-year-old continues to steam open her husband's letters from a lover he left 39 years ago.

Two of the strongest tales involve abiding guilt. In "The Dressmaker's Child," one moral slip cascades into increasingly serious ethical lapses, including a hit-and-run accident and coverup.

In "Folie à Deux," two boys react differently after a shameful experiment in which they send an old dog out to sea on a raft: "The haunted sea is all the truth there is for Anthony, what he honours because it matters still," his old friend who long ago moved past the incident realizes years later.

Trevor's stories have been compared – aptly – to those of Anton Chekhov and James Joyce. His characters are filled with yearning but, stymied by forces beyond their control, must resign themselves to stasis.

If this sounds less than chipper, it is offset by the beauty and solace to be found in the deep level of understanding Trevor brings to his characters. There is something inherently hopeful and humane about people who feel guilt, as opposed to boors without consciences.

In "A Bit on the Side," from Trevor's eponymous 2004 collection, he describes an adulterous couple's parting in terms of "the delicacy of their reticence." By refraining from bitter recriminations, they carry their love with them, untrampled, as they go their separate ways, making their "future less bleak than now it seemed." The delicacy of Trevor's reticence – his remarkable subtlety – makes his stories less bleak and far more resonant than they at first appear.

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