Cheating at Canasta

William Trevor, Cheating at Canasta
Publisher: Penguin Books
2008, 232 pages, paperback, $14

william trevor, throughout his celebrated career, has been likened often to his fellow Irishman James Joyce, whose epiphany-centered short stories and starkly realistic, descriptive style are certainly evident in Trevor's work. But as Trevor's recent collection Cheating at Canasta makes abundantly evident, his commonalities with Joyce extend beyond the stylistic; like his famous predecessor of the short form, Trevor has the remarkable ability to portray life, in all its beautifully muddled glory, in a manner that is wise while simple, timeless while grounded firmly in history and place.

Trevor's stories unfold slowly, like a sheet of paper that has been crumpled. There are no shootouts, no sobbing women, no (premeditated) crimes. Rather, we observe largely passive action as Trevor chronicles the lives of characters whose circumstances seem at first unremarkable. He then presents, with very little fanfare, the events that test them, situations calling for either grace or cowardice: a terrible car accident and its aftermath in "The Dressmaker's Child"; an elderly woman secretly keeping track of her husband's infidelity in "Old Flame"; the crumbling, peaceful disintegration of a couple in "A Perfect Relationship"; the decrescendo of an established upper-class family in "At Olivehill"; the bizarrely pitiable overtures made by a pedophile in "An Afternoon"; the homage paid by a husband to his Alzheimer's stricken wife in "Cheating at Canasta."

Trevor crafts his stories as mild, impressionistic paintings, dotting layers of plot and characterization on his provincial backdrops, ever careful not to lend to his neatly packaged stories any elements of surprise or drama as their inhabitants trudge along. And trudge they do: that Cheating at Canasta never feels like a cumbersome or slow-moving read is a testament to Trevor's astonishing talent, given that most of the stories move at approximately the rate of ivy climbing a fence. Yet Trevor displays astonishing ease in weaving together precisely chosen details, turns of phrase that are magnificent in their subtlety and brevity, and methodically dispensed plot information, the end result being something of an iron spiderweb--a story simultaneously so powerful, so delicate, and so complex that the reader must look at it again and again, attempting to understand its workings.

Like Joyce, Trevor is fascinated by religion--priests abound!--and country. As in Joyce's Dubliners, the stories of Trevor's collection are marked by their highly realistic, simple style, by their author's impressive command of time, space, and point of view, and by their collective sense of place. All twelve stories are set in Ireland or follow Irish characters, and those characters are for the most part middle-class.

Trevor departs from the Joycean storytelling tradition, however, in several notable ways. Though he preserves Joyce's realistic mode, rendering place, character, and events with deft, minimalistic precision, Trevor--unlike Joyce--is very willing to give readers firm guidance in their interpretations. Often, when he is done "showing" readers the story's action, or even in the midst of that action, Trevor pauses to dispense authorial commentary. A father in "The Children" reflects that "time would gather up the ends and see to it that his daughter's honoring of a memory was love that mattered also, and even mattered more." In the hands of a lesser author, such moments would be heavy-handed or awkward, but Trevor dispenses wisdom only in moments that have earned it, in language that is modest, humble, and moving. "Shame isn't bad," the protagonist of the title story imagines his absent wife telling him. "Nor the humility that is its gift." Such wisdom is hard-won by Trevor's characters, who usually fall victim to sinister circumstances revealed piecemeal as the stories move forward: it seems that Trevor subscribes to the school of thought which holds that pain reveals true character. Luckily for his readers, in most cases there is grace to be found in the truth that accompanies pain.

If there are Joycean epiphanies in Trevor's stories, they are experienced not by the characters (who often, in fact, seem to suspect their fates), but instead by the reader. Trevor's tone and pacing when presenting these revelatory moments is measured, almost relaxed, as if to say that although happiness may not be enough, and although everything we aspire to may prove inadequate, and although love may be merely a performance--that despite all that, there is solace and grace.

Trevor does not attempt to deny evil's existence, but evil in the collection has a clumsy feel to it. "Lies were at everyone's disposal, waiting to be picked up when there was a use to put them to," one character notes. Indeed, the desire for good to prevail runs strong throughout Cheating at Canasta, and the reader is often left paradoxically disappointed when what has been expected actually happens--Trevor's skillful fiction makes readers question their own paradigms, morals, and expectations.

Literary comparisons aside, Trevor is a wonderful storyteller in his own right. His stories should be read again and again so that their simple wisdoms might be better absorbed and contemplated, their lessons of humility more thoroughly learned. Readers may already know the lessons that Trevor endeavors to teach, but leafing through his gorgeous, mild stories, observing as lives are quietly destroyed and quietly repaired, readers will not only know, but feel.

--Sarah Morrison

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