Short stories use small scenes to show big picture

December 13, 1992|By Michael Boylan

THE COLLECTED STORIES. William Trevor. Viking.

1,261 pages. $30. Irish author William Trevor has acquired over the past 30 years a deserved reputation as one of the finest short story writers alive. His themes are various, ranging from a small boy's trials at a Catholic grammar school to the Irish struggle for independence (both political and economic).

This volume is a feast. In it, one can follow the work of a man who rarely repeats himself as he moves back and forth between the large and the small picture -- experimenting within the conventional narrative form along the way. If I were to set a unifying thread to Mr. Trevor's work, it would be his attention to order: social order, political order or merely the routines that lead us day-to-day.

His themes begin with a pattern. It is against this pattern that the stories begin. It is impossible in such limited space to explore fully the consequences of this, but a few examples from different periods in Mr. Trevor's writing should illustrate what I mean.

Take one of his early stories, "Raymond Bamber and Mrs. Fitch" (taken from the 1967 collection "The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories"):

She has a reputation . . . for getting drunk and coming out with awkward truths. I've heard it said. . . . Soon afterwards Raymond left the party and walked through the autumn evening, considering everything. The air was cool on his face as he strode towards Bayswater, thinking that as he continued to live his quiet life Mrs. Fitch would be attending parties similar to the Tamberleys', and she'd be telling the people she met there that they were grinding bores.

The routine that permits us to continue -- what does it reveal and what does it hide? Mrs. Fitch made it her business to disturb the order of polite society. In this instance, the order is revealed as corrupt by the single truth-teller such as Mrs. Fitch or Cynthia in "Beyond the Pale" (1981). This truth-teller is elevated to prophet as Cynthia speaks of a reality that everyone wishes not to think about:

"It suddenly dawned on me that Cynthia was knitting this whole fantasy out of nothing. It all worked backwards from the moment when she'd had the misfortune to witness the man's death in the sea. . . . He'd said goodbye and then unfortunately he's had his accident. . . . Cynthia took no notice. "An Irish joke," she said. . . . "An Irish joke, an unbecoming tale: of course it can't be true. Ridiculous, that a man returned here. Ridiculous, that he walked again by the seashore through the woods, hoping to understand where a woman's cruelty had come from. . . .

Through honey-tinted glasses we love you and we love your island, Kitty. We love the lilt of your racy history, we love your earls and heroes. Yet we made a sensible pale here once, as civilized people create a garden, pretty as a picture . . . beyond it lie the bleak untouchables, best kept as dots on the horizon, too terrible to contemplate. How can we be blamed if we make neither head nor tail of anything. . . . We people of Surrey: how can we know?"

Sometimes the order is a grinding poverty that has afflicted Ireland for centuries. In these stories, such as "The Ballroom of Romance" (1972) and "Kathleen's Field" (1990), it is the hopeless struggle itself that imposes Thomas Hardy determinism as it dooms unfortunate souls. In these cases the small picture is emblematic of the big picture.

We see individual lives perverted by class or position or religious fanaticism (as in 1967's "The Penthouse Apartment," 1975's "Office Romances" (1975), and 1992's "The Death of Peggy Meehan." The characters in these stories possess their own dignity, but they also stand for the Irish people and the universal struggle of oppressed (and formerly oppressed) peoples everywhere who live to change their fortune -- if they can. If anyone can.

William Trevor writes beautifully. His stories are resonant. This collection affords the reader an opportunity to explore his artistic vision of order. It is sure to reward you.

Dr. Boylan is a poet and philosopher who teaches at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.

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