Cheating at Canasta

As a writer, William Trevor long ago achieved the status of “beloved,” which just goes to show you how strange the heart is. His preoccupations, after all, are loss, loneliness, waste, isolation, estrangement, betrayal, cruelty, adultery, sexual predation, murder, death, and, on the bright side, endurance and grinding expiation. He is a master at creating an air of menace, and his humor, now increasingly subterranean, is mordant. His novels are very fine, in some cases great, but the short story — not a popular form — is his true domain. Here he has no living equal in English.

Of the 12 stories collected in Cheating at Canasta, 7 are set in Ireland, the rest mostly in England. There are lesser stories here, but at least 7, 6 of them Irish, are well up to snuff — 4 are real knockouts. So much for the census.

“Old Flame,” the best of the English stories, is a chilly little number about a woman whose husband’s long-ago-relinquished affair has obsessed her throughout the balance of their marriage. Extrapolating from steamed-open letters and eavesdropped phone calls, her relentless, in fact authorial, imagination has built the affair and its aftermath into a fully dramatized story, while her own life withers. This is a story within a story like a worm in an apple.

The New Ireland and the pass it has come to are present in these pages, most pungently in “Men of Ireland.” Donal Prunty, a seedy ne’er-do-well and a chiseler, returns to Ireland in stolen shoes after 23 years in England. He cadges a lift to Gleban, his native village, and immediately heads off to the priest’s house to extort money, claiming that the old man had plied him with drink and molested him when he was an altar boy. It’s a lie; but after protesting against it, the saddened priest finally gives Prunty all the money in the house, knowing with disgust that he has paid for silence and feeling also that he has violated the obligations of Christian charity: “Guiltless, he was guilty, his brave defiance as much as a subterfuge as any of his visitor’s. He might have belittled the petty offence that had occurred, so slight it was when you put it beside the betrayal of a Church and the shaming of Ireland’s priesthood. He might have managed to say something decent to a Gleban man who was down and out in case it would bring consolation to the man, in case it would calm his conscience if maybe one day his conscience would nag. Instead he had been fearful, diminished by the sins that so deeply stained his cloth, distrustful of his people.”

“At Olivehill” dwells on another species of betrayal characteristic of the present state of Ireland. It concerns an old landed Catholic family which had managed to preserve its estate against confiscation under the Penal Laws of the 17th and 18th centuries. All that’s in the past, of course, and as the story’s main character, Mollie — wife to James, the head of the family — muses, “faith’s variations mattered less in Ireland all these years later, since faith itself mattered less and influenced less how people lived.” Exactly so. But there is another faith rampant in the land, untrammeled by past inhibitions, and its objects are forward movement and gain.

Mollie has wished to spare the dying James the news that their sons intend to turn the estate into a golf course “in the hope that this would yield a more substantial profit than the land did.” The old man dies; the plan is put in train. The fields are savaged, the woods come down, beeches and maples sold for timber. As tends to be the way with Trevor’s miscreants, the sons feel no guilt. They, neither fools nor vulgar men as their mother knows, have been swept up in the tide of crass materialism and growth that so deforms Ireland today. Mollie sees the sin as hers. She should have let her husband know what was afoot: “His anger might have stirred their shame and might have won what, alone, she could not. That day, for the first time, her protection of him felt like a betrayal.” The story’s remaining pages are dominated by Mollie’s remorse, her penance, and her full appreciation of this crime against Ireland’s past.

Many of Trevor’s themes are perfectly realized in “Faith,” a story of almost preternatural narrative control. Bartholomew and Hester are brother and sister; she, three years older than him, severe, suspicious, and controlling: “Her bounden duty, she called it, looking after Bartholomew.” They are poor, respectable Protestants who have lived with their parents in a cramped apartment on Maunder Street in Dublin. Bartholomew, “the soft touch of the family,” is a clergyman in the moribund Church of Ireland, finding fulfillment in working with young people in Dublin. He was engaged to a woman he loved, but that ended, he later understands, because his intended sensed the nature of a future with Hester as sister-in-law.

After their parents’ deaths, Hester gravitates towards her brother, intent on making her lot one with his. He succumbs helplessly to her machinations in obtaining a benefice for him in a terminally decaying parish in the country. Though he is miserably aware of his sister’s interference in his life, it is Bartholomew’s nature to forgive, just as it is to have faith. For years he sees Hester’s sway over his destiny as part of some greater intent. And so, “the manner in which human existence — seeming to be shaped by the vagaries of time and chance but in fact obedient to a will — became the subject of more than one of Bartholomew’s sermons?. That the physical presence of things, and of words and people, amounted to very little made perfect sense to Bartholomew.”

Like so many of Trevor’s creatures, Bartholomew is in exile from life, somehow adrift from the present. The past, itself not much, is the one thing he has in common with his sister, and so it makes up their life. “As the two aged the understanding between them that had survived the cramped conditions of Maunder Street was supported by reminiscence — the smell of fresh bread every morning , the unexpected death of their mother, their father’s mercilessly slow, the two cremations at Glasnevin. Seaside photographs taken at Rush and Bettystown were in an album, visits to both grandmothers and to aunts were remembered; and hearing other generations talked about were. The present was kept a little at bay; that congregations everywhere continued to dwindle, that no ground had been regained by the Church or seemed likely to be, was not often mentioned. Hester was indifferent to this. Bartholomew was increasingly a prey to melancholy, but did not let it show, to Hester or to anyone.” The lean vigor of that passage is typical of Trevor’s writing and he moves the entire story along with similar muscle.

Gradually and terribly, Bartholomew’s faith, which had given some consolation and meaning to his barren existence in this dying backwater, begins to dissipate. Things are different with Hester. She too has faith, but it is prehensile, it has the resolute clench of certainty, and, indeed, of obliviousness, that made it possible for her to colonize her brother’s life without qualm. “Hester noticed no change in her brother, and he had told her nothing. Her own fulfillment, through him, continued, her belief undiminished, her certainties unchallenged. In her daily life all she distrusted she still distrusted. Her eye was cold, her scorn a nourishment; and then, for Hester too when more time had passed, there was adversity.”

Hester is dying. I will not say more; the story isn’t over and besides, a successful short story, which this is in spades, is in the end ineffable. I will, however, give one further instance of Trevor’s powerful economy with words and exquisite mastery of syntax. At the failing Hester’s request, Bartholomew picks primroses: “That night they were on her bedside table, in a glass there’d been at Maunder Street.” The subtle might of those simple words, their demotic arrangement so expressive of the pair’s pitifully inadequate bond, is heartbreaking. Truly, few writers break hearts with such ruthlessness, with such austerity, and with such precision of feeling. This must be what we love about him.