DEATH IN SUMMER
By William Trevor
214 pages, $23.95
By William Trevor
373 pages, $12.95 paper
R Reading a William Trevor novel is like driving a car in Manhattan: One can become engrossed by so many interesting things, store windows, vendors, shoppers, bright flashing colors, that there's a temptation to ignore traffic lights and rules of the road.
"Death in Summer" focuses on the life of Thaddeus Davenant, an elusive middle-aged man, an only child of Polish immigrant parents and bachelor who lives with husband and wife servants, Maidment and Zenobia, in Quincunx House in Essex. His young wife, Letitia, was killed in a road accident. Letitia's mother, Mrs. Iverson, comes to set the house to rights and watch over their infant, Georgina. In the midst of these trials, an old love, Mrs. Ferry, now ill, contacts him and asks for money. Thaddeus and Mrs. Iverson interview four girls -- including Pettie -- to find a suitable nanny for Georgina. Pettie "takes a shine" to Thaddeus. This becomes Pettie's motive for kidnapping the baby, having blame placed on Mrs. Iverson, and hoping that she will be hired and loved by Thaddeus.
Trevor's story is Gothic in tone and suffused alternately with botanical detail -- Letitia learns " . . . how to prune the wisteria, when to trim the yew, cosseting the ceanothus when frost threatened" -- and descriptions of the detritus of English cities -- " . . . Mouths simper, limbs are frozen as they gyrate, words ooze their promise." Experienced readers of Trevor recognize the style: Trevor "freeze-frames" the smallest detail to give a sense of reality, while keeping the main plot within peripheral, but distracted, vision.
Trevor's elucidation of character is achieved by interpolating day-to-day ordinariness with a psychological evocation of Thaddeus', Mrs. Ferry's, Pettie's and Albert's private thoughts. He is a master at the loom, weaving the complicated fabric of inner lives that color what passes for reality.
"Death in Summer" is about goodness and trust, though this realization does not come immediately to mind. The qualities in the novel are found in "stony places." The result is that their appearance, in the beautifully evoked character of Albert Luffe, a dim friend to the young girl, Pettie, is the unexpected highlight in this new novel. Albert's trust and constancy have the freshness of a summer rain. His brain is a bit dodgy, but he doesn't flinch the moral questions. When asked by Thaddeus why he came to Quincunx House, he says: "I come to tell you about Pettie, sir. So's you wouldn't think too badly of her, sir." Albert, slow as he is, would be believed in a grand jury. He gets to the heart of things with no evasion. "A lie is a lie if it has intention . . . " is the way he explains life.
You can tell that William Trevor's reputation is at its apogee. Viking Press has made Trevor's name at least three times larger on the cover than the title of his new work, "Death in Summer." Trevor, born and raised in Ireland and living in England, is perhaps the most accomplished writer in English today and deserves the acclaim.
"Ireland: Selected Stories" is a boon book for those who have never read Trevor or who have seen his short stories only occasionally in the New Yorker. It puts in one place the addiction that will overcome you when you read 19 of his best stories, among which are my favorites: "The Ballroom of Romance," "Death in Jerusalem," "The News From Ireland" and "The Piano Tuner's Wives." All are wonderful.
I'm a sucker for pathos, and so I think you'll find no better short story than "The Ballroom of Romance" for this quality. Think about Bridie, age 36, living with her crippled father 14 miles from town on a farm in rural Ireland of the 50s. She rides her bike on Friday night to the ballroom.
The dance hall, owned by Mr. Justin Dwyer, was miles from anywhere, a lone building by the roadside with treeless boglands all around and a gravel expanse in front of it. On pink pebbled cemment its title was painted in an azure blue that matched the depth of the background shade yet stood out well, unfussily proclaiming the Ballroom of Romance. Above these letters four coloured bulbs -- in red, green, orange and mauve -- were lit at appropriate times, an indication that the evening rendezvous was open for business.
(By the way, Mr. Justin Dwyer makes his money the same way that recently "retired by the voters" Irish Taoseach (Prime Minister), Albert Reynolds, made his fortune.)
At the ballroom, the Romantic Jazz Band, composed of clarinet, drums and piano, doesn't do jazz. Mr. Dwyer won't permit it. Instead, it plays old favorites for long-in-the-tooth maidens and boozy gents. "Harvest Moon," "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now" and "I'll Be Around" are the usual fare. I confess that the setting reminds me of the Bishop Timon High School dances of the mid-'50s. Dwyer and his wife sell lemonade and tea cakes to the socially challenged.
The older girls don't get asked to dance much. (Bridie is second-oldest.) She is asked to dance by a youth, perhaps half her age. He is "saving up to emigrate, the nation in his opinion being finished," he says. " 'I'm up in the hills with the uncle, labouring 14 hours a day. Is it any life for a young fellow?' " he asks a bemused Bridie, weighed down by a lifetime of such work.
Implied reticence, even after years of acquaintance and longing, is evident as another acceptable, if arcane, folkway to the Irish at the Ballroom of Romance.
"How're you, Bridie?" inquired Dano Ryan as she passed on her way to the cloakroom. He was idle for a moment with his drums . . . "I'm all right, Dano" she said. "Are you fit yourself?"
Later in the evening, the more inebriated bachelors, the ones over 50, arrive from the public house. They've been on the same schedule for years. Among them is Bowser Egan, tipsy as usual. He is "wed to his mother," with whom he lives -- one couldn't have two women in the same house. Thus he explains his unavailability to Bridie. ("Who'd want him?" the reader asks.) Bowser presses an unobliging Bridie too close during their dance. "You're a great little dancer, Bridie," he says. Bridie, remembering a young love of long ago, Patrick Grady, thinks instead about what might have been. There's much more to the story. The Ballroom of Romance is more like the pits, but that's Trevor's point.
It is awkward that Penguin, out to make a killing by reissuing old material in this volume, says on the back cover of the new paperback that "These 19 stories -- selected by Trevor himself from 'The Collected Stories' and 'After Rain' -- capture the nuances of rural and middle-class life in the Ireland he knows so well."
Trevor seems to disagree. He gives indication that he would have chosen other stories if it were up to him. In an author's note at the head of the volume, Trevor writes: "This selection of stories has been made from the Viking and Penguin editions. . . . It is representative of these collections as a whole rather than being a personal choice of those stories which I consider to be the best."
Maybe the next abstracted volume of Trevor short stories will carry the author's complete approbation. Still, if Trevor is new to you, you can't beat this selection.