Cheating at Canasta by William Trevor (2007) Penguin Books (2008) 240 pp
I have always wanted to like William Trevor’s stories more than I actually like them. After all, Trevor is venerated as one of the greatest short story writers of all time — or perhaps I want to like him more because of the charming, wise smile on his now 82-year-old face; he just looks like someone I should listen to. Sadly, much of my experience with him has left me, probably rightly, feeling rather dumb. For me, his stories have tended to be so subtle as to appear pointless. Don’t worry, Trevor lovers, I’ve always considered myself at fault. And, notwithstanding my misgivings, something must have emanated from the stories, or I hoped to suddenly become more perceptive, because I am still attracted to his work and have high expectations that someday his writing and I will develop a strong relationship. Cheating at Canasta certainly helped.
This collection of twelve stories had the subtle style I expected, but I must have been paying closer attention because time and again I was seduced by Trevor’s quiet insights. His style certainly isn’t showy, but one can see the hand of a master molding a thought to its simplest shape without reducing the detailed textures. It is in the textures that these stories excel. Indeed, if you miss the texture, you might miss the story itself, as I’m sure has been my problem time and again. The premises for many of the stories in this collection aren’t interesting on their face but were, rather, touching or devestating glimpses at human beings chased down by circumstance or by their own, usually innocent, folly.
“The Dressmaker’s Child,” the first story of the collection, really grabbed hold of me. Cahal, a young man who works as a mechanic with his father, is one day solicited to escort a newly married tourist couple to a religious statue which, it is said, cries. The statue is not much of a shrine for the locals; after all, it’s just the rain collecting there. The initial buildup is slow and contemplative. It takes quite a bit of the story before we actualy see the titular character, a little girl in a ragged white dress, who plays on the side of the road. It’s actually worse than it sounds. The little girl’s sport is to run into cars as they go by.
When Cahal hits something on the drive back home, just as he’s passing the dressmaker’s home, and the couple in the back don’t notice, he’s able to discount his own impression that he might have hit — actually, might have killed — the little girl. The story becomes incredibly strange and incredibly interesting when the dressmaker herself starts popping up wherever Cahal is. There’s a mixture of vengence and sexuality in her gaze, and I’d never considered that combination before nor the effects it might have on the young man. The story starts us in one place and then suddenly we realize we’ve been reading an entirely different story. This is not always the case with Trevor’s stories, but it certainly was a nice opening to this collection.
This strange story had me paying close attention to the rest of the stories. It was so strange, and the close attention to the gestures and to what was not being said paid off. Consequently, the following opening to “The Room,” which has the subtle style I’d been accustomed to when I read Trevor, became quite a dazzling piece of writing; there is so much detail in each clause.
‘My marriage is breaking up,’ the man who’d made love to her in his temporary accomodation had confided when, as strangers, they had danced together. ‘And yours?’ he’d asked, and she’d hesitated and then said no, not breaking up. There’d never been talk of that. And when they danced the second time, after they’d had a drink together and then a few more, he asked her if she had children and she said she hadn’t. That she was not able to had been known before the marriage and then become part of it — as her employment at the Charterhouse Institute had been until six weeks ago, when the Institute had decided to close down.
The syntax is, at times, confusing. I had to read “That she was not able to had been known . . .” a few times before it made sense (in fact, when I typed it above, and then later when reviewing my review, I had to read it a couple of times again — I think I’ve smoothed it over in my mind by now). Still, there’s something in that tangle that relates to the story. I like that it is tangled yet the story still moves on quite quickly, making the reader (at least this reader) do double-takes, which became more and more enjoyable the more I delved into Trevor’s stories. There’s almost always — if not always — many things — if not everything — going on underneath.
A couple of my favorites stories in the collection were two that dealt with relationships, in particular with the not-so-showy aspects of relationships, those stable elements, which aren’t actually that stable but upon which one might make assumptions sufficiently strong to build a relationship upon.
“Cheating at Canasta” is a touching story where a man, Mallory, sits and eats in a restaurant in an Italian city. He’s getting no real pleasure, though; he’s only there because he promised his recently deceased wife, with whom he’d frequented the restaurant during their marriage, that he’d go back again after she died. He didn’t want to go and deal with the memories, and it seemed even more foolish considering she made him make the promise when she herself was losing her memory. It was a momentary whim. Somehow she remembered these trips, extracted the promise, and then forgot the trips and the promise the next moment.
At the restaurant Mallory thinks back on her dying days when they’d play canasta in her hospital room. Since she had no idea what was going on, he’d often cheat to let her win. During those games he would think about what was already lost; and why satisfy her demand to visit this restaurant when in the very moment she made it she forgot it?
In the depths of her darkening twilight, if there still were places they belonged in a childhood he had not known, among shadows that were hers, not his, not theirs. In all that was forgotten how could it matter if a whim, forgotten too, was put aside, as the playing cards fell from her hand were?
While in the restaurant, Mallory eavesdrops on a young couple:
‘I keep not hearing what you’re saying.’
‘I said I wasn’t tired.’
Mallory didn’t believe she hadn’t been heard: her husband was closer to her than he was and he’d heard the ‘Not really’ himself. The scratchy irritation nurtured malevolence unpredictably in both of them, making her not say why she had cried and causing him to lie. My God, Mallory thought, what they are wasting!
This story, while full of sentiment, is not sentimental. I thought its reflection on relationships and their destruction, the times built up and then lost, was remarkably acute.
Another touching story with a simple premise and simple (seemingly) characters was “A Perfect Relationship.” Here we go into an empty apartment with Prosper, an older man who has just lost his much younger girlfriend. They never fought. There was no bitterness. All seemed to be well:
The affection in their relationship had been the pleasure of both their lives: that had not been said before in this room, nor even very often that they were fortunate.
Nevertheless, one day she simply leaves, and he just cannot comprehend it:
He sat where she had left him, thinking he had never known her, for what else made sense?
It is sad to see how much this absences affects him, how much it has shaken a foundation he felt was securely in place and that he believed he needed in order to function. There’s an excellent passage that shows this. Prosper is drinking wine alone in a public house.
He sipped the chilled win, glancing about at the men on their own. Any one of them might be waiting for her. That wasn’t impossible, although it would have been once.
I’ve read quite a few short stories in the past few months. Some are very conventional, written by people who seem to be following a learned formula for writing a short story. Some have been masterful. These certainly fall into the latter category. Trevor is not afraid to take us wherever the story demands to go. A story that begins with a car ride to see a crying statue, that devotes a bit of time to introspection and place, can move on to become one with a vengeful, hypersexual mother menacing a young man. Yet it all felt natural and exciting, something those conventional stories lack.
Thankfully, Trevor isn’t the only one writing wonderful short fiction these days. We’ve got him at 82, Alice Munro at 79, Tobias Wolff at 65, George Saunders at 51, Chris Adrian at 40, Maile Meloy at 38, and Karen Russell at 29. Those names and ages were just the ones off the top of my head. The short story is still a thriving field, and here is a book by one of its chief sowers and harvesters.