William Trevor has a reputation as a short story master, and A Bit On The Side does nothing in my mind to contradict his reputation. Each tale is a carefully constructed gem of simple, clear writing. Simple people in real life dilemmas who touch the heart as they work their way through their difficulties. And yet. And yet. Yet what? I ask myself.
Well, exquisite as Trevor’s writing craft is, it is often a bit too obvious. The carefully chosen scene. The details of the passing landscape or humanity, each particularly appropriate for its effect or placement in the scene. It’s as if some times we are watching the author’s hand move his figures around on a miniature set. Artifice that’s obvious rather than hidden. In “Justina’s Priest,” for example, each character is dressed just so to reflect the decline of religiosity in the Parish. Each word and response comes in just the right way to fit the POV of the priest mourning the loss of the old ways. And yet. And yet. Yet what? I ask myself.
Well, there is the title story, where that obviousness is not obvious at all. There, the artifice moves nicely under the genuine emotions of the characters. Or “Sacred Statues,” where the author’s hand retreats behind the scenes and we have no sense that either we or the situation is being manipulated by anything but the natural force of events. And yet. And yet. Yet what? I ask again.
Well, something is still missing, and it is this: none of the stories is truly moving. Even the one where a mother finds herself pregnant and proposes to sell this fourth offspring to a childless couple to relieve their poverty so her gifted husband can continue to carve the holy-figure but commercially unviable statues seems to engender nothing more intense than anxiety and regret and sadness and acceptance either for the reader or the characters. I envy those writers who can make a great deal out of a small events. I tend toward the Faulknerian style of needing something obviously significant to happen and wish sometimes I could make more with less. However, Trevor seems to have the opposite knack of making very little out of potentially large events, and it leaves me feeling a bit cheated.
I just finished Sam Shepherd’s story, “Land of the Living, in The New Yorker. I suppose it could be argued that Shepherd’s writing skill is on a lesser plane than Trevor’s. It’s certainly less “literary.” However, I was moved more by that one story and its rather commonplace domestic conflict than by all the stories in A Bit On The Side put together. Taste? Maybe. But there’s only so much drama in acceptance, and I would argue that storytelling needs drama. More than Trevor offers despite his superb talent and command of the short story form.