Review: Padgett Powell on William Trevor

From Padgett Powell

By threatening to write a profile of them, I have killed two people named Collins.  One was Allen Collins, a tenable target since I went to school with him and knew what little nothings we were, coming from nowhere, with nothing, in Jacksonville, Florida, westside, more nothing than southside, before Allen became a rock star playing a guitar whose neck was larger around than his arm even at the bloody end, as it certainly was when I first saw him play. He was fourteen playing in our junior-high-school cafeteria, set up where the dirty dishes went in, winning a battle of the bands in 1966. The band was The 1% and would become Lynyrd Skynyrd within five years of this moment I saw gentle Allen Collins and gentler Bob Burns, who were delinquent-seeming guys in trouble for long hair, play so well it froze us into thinking, as their first manager would put it later the first time he heard them, we were going to have a heart attack. What was unusual about this killing was that by the time I screwed up my pencil courage and started hunting Allen down to do the profile I knew I uniquely could do, I discovered he had been dead, of pneumonia from paralysis by car crash following plane crash, for ten years. My timing was off.

This is all about poor timing. We will not pause to detail the second Collins I killed with intent to profile but he is Blackie Collins and he designed a piece of cutlery you have had in your hand or a knife or tool someone else copied. Motorcycle crash three or so years after I talked to him laying ground for profile. He designed the Gerber LST and I had the rare red one in my pocket when I stepped up to him at a knife show and he told me he designed it for Gerber asking for a Corvette as fee and credit in the catalogue and they gave him the Corvette, which by weird coincidence in the killing-Collinses scheme of things he picked up in Jacksonville, Florida, but they did not give him the credit. That angered Blackie Collins and he became an expert witness against Gerber in Tim Leatherman’s lawsuit over the creation of the first multi-tool, a truly revolutionary industrial-design moment, and Gerber lost the case, and there we were all set to do a profile that I knew I uniquely could do and Blackie, like Allen, went and died.

I have cooled my jets on targeting folk to profile them, as I think anyone might understand given how I wiped out the Collinses, and when I was asked by Book Post to review William Trevor’s last book of stories (unless his estate goes Hemingway on us) I said Yes meaning No, because I do not think a book review serves a man or a woman or a book. I said Yes meaning No, no review, I will do a little profile of Trevor, which I uniquely can do, for two reasons: first, I cannot kill him because he is already dead, Bob Dylan’s getting the dynamite money having killed him, not out of outraged pique or sourness, and I suspect he was charmed by Mr. Dylan’s putting ice fishing over podium slurring, but as Mr. Trevor, who, however modest, and I sense he was consummately modest, not unlike Peter Taylor, his American counterpart (Trevor being Irish), Taylor, whom I knew not well enough to uniquely profile but well enough to know that his consummate modesty was perhaps the one aspect of his character smaller than the delight he took in the naughty—however modest he was, Mr. Trevor knew he was dynamite-money-qualified and ninety, and he saw Dylan invited but not going to Stockholm, and he said, Ah, that’s it then. It may have not killed him but it kills me.

Second, in a thirty-four-year career of schoolmarming, of teaching that which cannot be taught (the writing of fiction), I taught almost exclusively the stories of William Trevor. The Collected Stories is pound for pound the most literary bang for buck in the English world. Let’s skip the blurbist review Pablum“by turns funny and profound”—the book is the most telling demonstration of how to write (and why to write, if we want to get into the unteachable Pablum for real) there is. Trevor is a formalist, by which I do not mean what one is supposed to mean by the term (something some Russians said in the thirties and over here Brooks and Warren were heavily on about). By formalist I mean that if there are fifty stories by William Trevor in front of you, there are fifty different robustly executed forms of narrative. The impulse to write a story different in structure from the last seems to have been the first thing on Trevor’s mind. Trevor is so good a writer that he can sit down to an exercise and prevail upon whatever debate-lowering restriction that frivolity might impose and write right over the obstacle and pull it off.

Example: The story “Virgins” will be in present tense, though 98 percent of it will have happened in the past, narrated in past tense, demonstrating (for the American student who will ignore) the proper restriction of present tense (Time Signature). “The Day We Got Drunk on Cake” will be 98 percent in the dramatic present, told in the proper past tense, as superficially light as the title suggests, and break your heart and frighten you with the hero’s “prevailing condition of emotional delicacy,” a phrase tendered in the opening paragraph that you ignored for its flippancy.

Trevor always establishes the problem immediately (Presenting the Problem), sometimes overtly, top-down (“Without meaning to, Verity had taken her mother’s place”), and sometimes covertly, in accreting details that I think demonstrate what was called “inductive logic” in the sophomore courses where I attended hard and futilely to my intellectual fundament. Two stories below will detail the inductive strategem.

In “On the Zattere,” Verity Unwill (above) is aware she has without meaning to taken her mother’s place, and in the next paragraph her father is also aware she has done this and likes it. They will be seen together at the end, structurally delivering the two-person configuration that Trevor intimates in the opening (Point of View). In “The News from Ireland” Trevor will enter the heads of hero, hero’s sister, hero’s object of affection, hero’s object of affection’s object of affection, hero’s antagonist, hero’s antagonist’s wife, and hero’s antagonist’s children, stopping just short of entering the heads of the hero’s antagonist’s children’s pets, demonstrating how many points of view one may have (infinite) and that, in the domain of what Twain liked to call romantic fiction, returns on multiplying points of view diminish as their numbers grow.

In “Access to the Children” Trevor uses three-fifths of a point of view for the hero (the infamous unreliable narrator, one here two-fifths impaired by booze and denial and the debilitation of divorce and its denial), a narrative restriction that requires Trevor to break a Big Rule (Twain: “There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction—some say twenty-two”) to add a late, minor POV for the duration of one observation that delivers information concealed from us by the two-fifths’ impairment of hero. The hero’s wearing a green tweed suit in need of pressing and jangling his keys—seedy and happy-go-lucky at once—is in the opening sentence. In the opening two paragraphs of “Lunch in Winter” Nancy Simpson seems to have been married four times, and we observe her interest in young tennis players and chaps in the Bayou hotel lounge where she likes to stay, as she puts on her face to meet yet another man for lunch, one to whom, we learn in another couple of paragraphs, she was married long ago. We get the idea, inductive logic, that Nancy Simpson may be what they once called promiscuous. Is this term used today? Nancy, it will develop, at a time when she was not married to Simpson but to a fertilizer salesman in Philadelphia, conceived one of her children not with the fertilizer salesman but with the sunken-chested (tubercular) boy whom she found playing the rear half of a vaudeville mule. Are we right? May we say promiscuous? Trevor has Nancy, fully unimpaired, tell us (another Big Rule he likes to break) she believes in Mr. Robin Right, and if she just keeps looking, with all five fifths of her wit, she will find him. Mr. Robin Right, in fact, if she remains courageous, she tells us, “will come bob, bob, bobbing along.” She is one of Trevor’s heroes ruined and saved by indissoluble belief, all the more supportable in his view for that belief’s putative insupportability. She’s the kind he likes, the naughty who will be naughty for those of us afraid to be, like the best naughty vicariousness in his American counterpart Peter Taylor.

Other heroes are wrecked by loneliness that subsumes them (marrying known thieves, to not be alone). Others by social pressures (a boy is consummately cruel to his mother, whom he knows he loves beyond anyone else, because she is a social embarrassment). The social pressure to not be deemed senile lest one be put away forces an old lady to allow her house to be wrecked by delinquent teenagers sent there to paint it, in the course of which they have sex in her bed and release her budgerigar—the man who engineers this intervention I want to hunt down and kill every time I read this story. I will kill also the husband of the woman whose baby Mrs. Lacy adopted and must now give back according to the advocacy of this new husband. Betty Lacy is four and just last week made a mess of the groceries by trying to make a cake. Brigit Lacy will give her up. I can’t take it. Trevor can make you fight people who do not exist. That is writing. Dynamite-money writing if there is any of it at all.

I am not about to open the book sent to me by Book Post for a review—perhaps its first. I am told the book is called Last Stories. I can’t wait to open it, but I can. As long as it is there, the stories cannot be read, yet, but there they are. This is like Christmas. Let’s savor it. These stories are it, unless, as I say, they Hemingway Mr. Trevor.  I will read the book slowly, a page a day, maybe slower. This is it.

Postscript, September 3, 2018: I broke down and read this book. I read it slowly and desultorily, knowing that these are the last stories of their kind on earth. They are as noble and precious as the last dead elephants will soon be. Trevor came to the end acting like it: these stories are bleak. They are simpler than the earlier stories and operate on one or two narrative planes where once three or five narrative planes operated. They sometimes are a tad looser in the time signature, a ridiculous term I use to mean chronological order, our knowing crisply when is when. If when is when is a bit looser here it may be because when is the end. It is getting dark and Trevor sees things through to the end. People do some dying here, they get down to basic last wants and memories. Lifetimes of longings circle back around to long-last fruition, and the fruit is not bright fresh fruit. Gird yourself. Trevor is brave, brave, and strong, a phrase I heard a man say of himself once at a mall.

Padgett Powell is the author of six novels and three books of short stories, most recently Cries for Help, Various. He taught for thirty-four years in the English Department and Creative Writing Program at the University of Florida.

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