The melancholy but just-right art of William Trevor

Cheating at Canasta

By William Trevor


Viking / 232 pages / $24.95

You can't escape the past. All 12 stories in William Trevor's newest collection, Cheating At Canasta, lead inexorably to that conclusion.


An Irish-born English author, Trevor at 79 is considered the best short story writer alive today. Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his service to literature, he has written more than 30 books and has won numerous awards including England's prestigious Whitbread Prize.

Although Trevor's prose doesn't contain James Joyce's metaphorical flourishes, some critics have compared him to Joyce for his careful use of evocative details and for the melancholy tone that pervades his stories. As Trevor said in an interview with Publisher's Weekly, "I am very interested in the sadness of fate."

Trevor usually begins a story with a quietly riveting hook. Take this lead sentence from "At Olivehill": " 'Well, at least don't tell him,' their mother begged. 'At least do nothing until he's gone.' " As the story develops, we learn the grown sons plan to sell a part of the family farm in order to pay bills. Their aged mother lies by omission, keeping this information from James, her husband, out of consideration for his feelings. But when James dies, she realizes that he would have come up with a less painful solution to their financial woes. It's too late, and she has to live with regret.

Here's another strong lead. This one's from "The Room": " 'Do you know why you are doing this?' he asked, and Katherine hesitated, then shook her head, although she did know." Katherine is having an affair to overcome the hurt incurred when her husband was involved in a murder and she lied to the police to protect him. As she's explaining her past to her lover, she realizes that she and her husband have never fully discussed this circumstance. When the story ends, Katherine decides to leave her husband: "The best that love could do was not enough, and he would know that also."

Generally, Trevor's characters feel guilty about something they should have done differently. One character fails to understand the ramifications of a situation. Another makes a too hasty decision. Someone else tries to protect a loved one. Still another tries to cover his own back. Most of them lie -- either by omission or commission. And in the world of these stories, there's no such thing as a little white lie.

The plots unfold, and the characters must endure the consequences as they come to the realization that they've hoisted themselves on their own petards. All they can do is replay their memories in little increments as they try to figure out what they should have done and how they went wrong.

Take "The Dressmaker's Child" (2006 O. Henry Award), one of several stories featuring adolescents and the best story in this collection. The protagonist, Cahal, is a 19-year-old youth who works as a mechanic in his father's garage. The young man agrees to take a vacationing Spanish couple to the shrine of a weeping statue of the Virgin Mary in return for 50 euros -- even though he knows that the miraculous claims are fraudulent. On his drive back, he sees a little girl's white nightgown in the car's headlights and feels a thud lasting no more than a second. Did he hit a child? Or did he imagine it? He doesn't stop his car out of fear of being caught. Soon he's obsessed by the image of the child's nightgown as he goes to Mass and confession and even prays to the statue -- tasting her raindrop tears. Trying to work through his feelings about the accident, he feels helpless. Meanwhile, the child's mother stalks him like a wraith.

The title story is the most melancholy but least effective in the collection. It focuses on an aging man who goes to a restaurant, which he and his wife visited in the past. She's in a nursing home and suffering from dementia but wants him to eat at the restaurant for the sake of old times. While he's eating, he reminisces about letting her win at canasta (the only activity that seems to engage her). Soon he overhears a young couple arguing over petty matters and sadly remembers similar arguments between him and his wife. If only he could make up for those silly arguments.


Donal Prunty in "Men of Ireland" is the only malevolent protagonist in the book, yet Prunty isn't evil so much as he's weak. After a life of debauchery, Prunty comes back to Ireland and blackmails Father Meade. Since the old priest has committed an undisclosed but insignificant offense against Prunty, he gives him money in return for silence. The ending is sad, but, as with most of these stories, it feels just right, like a key turning in a lock.

Ultimately, none of the endings in these stories is happy. But under Trevor's watchful eye, they're not tragic either. They're more like vivid moments of regret that Trevor renders with simple declarative sentences and understatement. Even though one hopes that fate would be kind, especially in the case of someone like Father Meade, it isn't. In these tales, as in life, there are very few lucky breaks. People reap what they sow.

Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. Her next book, "Reading Lips," will be published this year.