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Small gems from William Trevor

Subtlety and consolatory grace remain the hallmarks of Trevor's short stories

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As a book critic, the three comments I hear most often are, "I don't have time to read books," "I don't like short stories," and "I only read nonfiction."

A possible rejoinder to all three is: Have you ever read William Trevor? His stories – many of which involve adultery, guilt, and longing – are marvels of craftsmanship in which whole lives are distilled into potently concentrated essences that can be easily quaffed in a sitting. Unlike novels, which the time-pressed may have to leave untouched for weeks between readings, Trevor's short stories, which run about 20 pages each, don't require keeping plots and characters straight over time.

Cheating at Canasta is Trevor's 12th collection in the 40 years since he published "The Day We Got Drunk on Cake." He's also written 13 novels. After decades at his craft, he's writing in top form, exploring misgivings and longings with subtlety and acuity. In fact, the first two of the 12 stories in this volume won O. Henry Awards.

The title story is about an Englishman named Mallory who revisits old haunts in Italy, including Harry's Bar in Venice, fulfilling a "last insistence" expressed by his wife as she slipped into dementia. Because Mallory is a faithful man, he "was here to honour a whim that would have been forgotten as soon as it was expressed." He is also a man who, when visiting his wife at her nursing home, cheated at Canasta so she could win. Dining alone, he overhears another couple arguing in English and reflects, "Marriage was an uncalculated risk ... the trickiest of all undertakings…."

"The Room" concerns a woman who unthinkingly provides a covering alibi when her husband is accused of murdering a young woman with whom, unbeknownst to her, he was having an affair. Nine years later, the loyal wife realizes that she's still plagued by "the nag of doubt." Wanting to see what deceit feels like, she has her own brief fling and wonders, "Was stealth an excitement still?" Although Trevor emigrated to England in 1954 and lives in Devon, most of his stories are set in contemporary Ireland, with characters who range from teens to elders. While many story collections suffer from repetitiveness when read in rapid succession, Trevor's scope is sufficiently broad to avoid this pitfall. The challenge here is getting one's bearings at the start of each story.

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