William Trevor, by universal critical agreement, is one of the best short-story writers practicing that underrated art form. The twelve new stories in Cheating at Canasta, most of which appeared in The New Yorker, reaffirm that he has a profound understanding of the complexity of what makes people do what they do and an unerring ability to use language to suggest that intimate intricacy.
As in all great short stories, from those of Anton Chekhov to Raymond Carver, there is mystery and not a little menace in the stories of William Trevorsecrets so tangled and inexplicable that efforts to explain them with the language of psychology or sociology or history are either futile or absurd. This is not accidental, but part of the short story’s historical and generic tradition, for the form originated in primitive myth, which, by its very nature, was concerned with mystery, for which story was the only explanatory model available. Moreover, the short story is often concerned with the enigma of motivation. Part of the reason for this is the short story’s close relationship to the romance form, which, allegorical in its nature, develops characters that, even as they seem to be like real people in the real world, act as if they are obsessed, propelled by some mysterious force.
A classic example is Trevor’s “The Dressmaker’s Child,” in which Cahill, a nineteen-year-old Irish man, takes a couple of young Spanish tourists, seeking a blessing on their marriage, to a statue that was once thought to shed miraculous tears. However, the miracle of the statue has since been discredited, and the Dublin man who told them about it was only lying to get them to buy him drinks. Cahill knows all this, but wants the fifty euros he charges to drive the couple to the statue. On the way back, a young female child, who has a habit of doing such things, runs out in the road and into his car. Cahill does not stop. When the child’s body is found in a quarry half a mile from her home, the mother, a dressmaker, who has borne the child out of wedlock, begins to stalk Cahill, hinting that she saw him hit the girl. Cahill imagines that he walked back to the site of the accident and carried the body of the child to the quarry, but he knows that it was the mother who has done this. The mother urges Cahill to leave his girlfriend and invites him to come home with her. Cahill, afraid, without knowing what he fears, cannot dismiss the connection between him and the dressmaker. When he tries to understand this, he is bewildered, but he knows that one day he will go to her. The story suggests that it is possible that death and guilt, as well as birth and love, can unite two people.
Guilt, secrets, and obsession also dominate “Folie à Deux.” Wilby, a divorced man in his forties, is in Paris, indulging in his interest in rare stamps. At a café, he sees an employee who looks like a man named Anthony who Wilby knew as a boy, a man who disappeared years before and who everyone assumed was dead. Wilby recalls a significant event that has bound them together in guilt. Once the two boys, out of curiosity, put Anthony’s old dog Jerico in a small boat and pushed him out to sea, just to find out what he would do. They hear the dog howling and later see its body when it is washed up on shore. Although this does not seem to affect Wilby so much, it profoundly changes Anthony, who becomes quieter and more withdrawn. Later, when Wilby runs into Anthony again at school, he discovers that Anthony is even more remote and strange; Wilby does not befriend him again, even though he feels guilty about this. Like Cahill in “The Dressmaker’s Child,” Wilby’s guilt is muddled by bewilderment. When he goes back to the café and realizes that it is Anthony, Wilby knows that he will return to his own safe, tidy world, but this morning he likes himself less than he likes his childhood friend.
The mystery of motivation and secrets of the past also energize “The Room.” A forty-seven-year-old woman named Katherine is engaged in an affair, perhaps in revenge for her husband’s involvement with a prostitute, who was murdered and for whom he was a suspect, nine years before. Katherine lied for her husband then, in partial repayment for her inability to have children, providing him with an alibi, although it seems quite clear that he did not kill the woman. When Katherine’s lover asks her why she loves her husband, she says that no one can answer that question and, in a statement central to Trevor’s success with the short story, asserts that most often, people do not know why they do things....
(The entire section is 1883 words.)