Cheating at Canasta: Stories by William Trevor

November 19, 2007 at 2:20 pm (Uncategorized)

canasta.jpg trevor.jpg In a capsule review of William Trevor’s story collection A Bit on the Side (2004), I made a rather lighthearted reference to his new collection, Cheating at Canasta, which I had not yet read. I should have known better! To me, that title hinted at a possibly inconsequential or humorous event. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the title story, Mallory sits alone at Harry’s Bar in Venice, honoring a promise he made to his late wife Julia to visit once again the places they had always loved. He cannot help reminiscing about her long decline, during which he had kept up the charade of playing canasta with her. (The games had become a charade because she barely remembered how to play; at times, she barely remembered Mallory himself.) Despite his almost overwhelming sadness, Mallory is able to offer an oblique kindness toward a troubled young couple from America as they leave Harry’s Bar. His action, coming from the depths of his sorrow, may be their salvation.

The opening story, “The Dressmaker’s Child,” is about Cahal, a young auto mechanic who gives a lift to a Spanish couple who have come to the town to see a statue of the Virgin. The statue reputedly weeps real tears, and though this legend has been largely discredited, the couple want to see the statue anyway. On the way back, in the back seat, they begin to kiss passionately. Watching them in the rear view mirror, Cahal is mesmerized. He takes his eyes off the road for too long a time, with disastrous results. Not a crack-up – something worse…

In another story, “Olivehill,” a family transforms a large chunk of their property, part of a lovely old estate in Ireland, into a golf course. They must do this in order to hang on to their house and what little land remains around it. Each family member is to some degree appalled by the prospect of this this action, none more so than James, the patriarch of the family. James dies thinking that he and his wife Mollie have made a successful stand against the golf course. But they have not. For her part, Mollie is tormented by the question of what she owes to James’s memory.

Despite what this scenario might seem to bode, this is a loving family that is by no means riven by conflict. True, the two sons are prime movers in pushing the golf course scheme forward, but they are not happy about it and don’t pretend to be. Somehow, the shared anguish and resignation of both parents and children makes the story all the more poignant.

These tales are luminous and beautiful, but taken all together they are an almost unremitting chronicle of the pain of the human condition. For that reason, I could not read the collection straight through. I am reminded of the line from Julius Caesar that I have quoted before. It is from Mark Antony’s funeral oration: “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.” I also think of the expression from The Aeneid, “lacrimae rerum,” quoted by Penelope Lively in The Photograph.


  1. Roberta Recommends: Best of 2007, Part One « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Cheating at Canasta, by that master of the short story William Trevor; […]

  2. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Daniyal Mueenuddin Too Much Happiness – Alice Munro Museum of Dr. Moses – Joyce Carol Oates Cheating at Canasta – William Trevor Unaccustomed Earth and Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri Ideas of […]

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