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Cheating at Canasta

William Trevor

" On Sundays when he looked down from the pulpit at aged faces, at tired eyes, heads turned to hear him better, and when his hand was afterwards shaken at the door, he sensed the hope that had flickered into life during the service: in all that was promised, in psalm and gospel, in his own interpretations, the end was not an end. "

Reviewed by Shawn  A. Miller

In a BBC radio interview in which William Trevor was explaining the aesthetic richness of hopeless love affairs, the celebrated short story writer was confronted with a question masquerading as a statement. "Happiness is boring," interviewer John Tusa said. "Yes it is," Trevor replied. 

Trevor, of course, is wrong about this, though his latest collection of stories, Cheating at Canasta, shows the strength of the Irish-born writer's convictions. A smear of color here and there, however, would have helped animate a rather lifeless, torporous literary trudge. 

The 12 stories in Cheating at Canasta consist, roughly and in this order, of the following: A mechanic runs over the daughter of a dissolute single mother (The Dressmaker’s Child); a couple engages in a hopeless love affair in which the "the best that love could do was not enough" (The Room); an alcoholic revisits his childhood parish priest demanding money to keep quiet about his having been molested (Men of Ireland); an English widower returns to a restaurant in Italy in memory of his dead wife (Cheating at Canasta); a young man is beaten to death after leaving a nightclub (Bravado); a 15-year-old girl is nearly abducted by a sex predator (An Afternoon); an old woman withdraws in darkness after her husband dies and her sons sell the family farm to a golf course developer (At Olivehill); a man is abandoned by his girlfriend who eventually comes back, at which point he decides he doesn’t want her anyway (A Perfect Relationship); a widower and a woman whose husband has left her get married, which makes their children from the previous relationships unhappy (The Children); a long-married man has lunch for the last time with a woman with whom he had an affair (Old Flame); a brother watches as his sister succumbs to a protracted, terminal illness (Faith); a man meets a friend he long thought was dead, which reminds him of the time the two set a lame dog adrift at sea guaranteeing its death (Folie a Deux). 

Trevor, despite all this, is a lovely writer, inappropriate as the word may be. His prose can be a pleasure, as when he writes, 

Courage comes with misfortune; she took no credit for it 

He had forgiven what she couldn’t help, doing so as natural to him as scorn and prickliness were in her

Her bare, pale legs were like twigs stripped of their bark.

And Trevor has a skill for dropping readers immediately into the flow of a story at the outset, revealing the richness of his fictional world vividly and palpably. It is quite possible that a black humor is at work in Cheating at Canasta that I’m not properly attuned to. But whatever the book’s virtues, it felt simply bleak, not richly melancholic. And that is a not inconsiderable difference.

Shawn A. Miller  is the founder/editor of Criticalcompendium.com and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Northern California.


PublisherViking Adult

Publication Date: October 2007

Paperback/Hardback? Hardback

First collection?No

Author bio:  Irish-born William Trevor began his artistic life a wood sculptor. In 1960, at the age of 32, Trevor joined a London advertising agency at which point he began to write seriously. He composed the novel The Old Boys - the first of 13 - entirely on company time. Trevor has also penned 12 short story collections, two novellas, a play, a children’s book and two works of nonfiction. Despite his varied output, Trevor considers himself “a short story writer who also writes the occasional novel, not the other way around.” Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda has called Trevor “the best short story writer alive.”

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