The William Trevor Reader: “The Penthouse Apartment”

November 9, 2021 | 1 book mentioned 2 3 min read

“The Penthouse Apartment” is a very long story by William Trevor’s standards, and I’m not entirely sure it earns its page count. The main character, Mrs. Winton—an elderly spinster, you’ll perhaps be unsurprised to learn—is drawn into a chaotic scene in the apartment the Runcas, a rich couple who live in the penthouse of her building. Out of boredom, Bianca, the Runca’s maid, offers to show Mrs. Winton (and Mrs. Winton’s little dog) the apartment, where they meet Mr. Morgan, the building handyman, ostensibly doing work on the plumbing and getting drunk on whiskey at noon. Mr. Morgan, increasingly unhinged by drink, upends a vase of flowers, destroys a carpet, and assaults some furniture, ruining the pristinely decorated apartment in advance of a photo shoot the Runcas have scheduled with a fashion magazine for that afternoon. Mrs. Winton tries to control the crazed handyman, becomes complicit in the destruction, and in the end her dog is blamed for it. Having experienced some kind of epiphany during the chaos, Mrs. Winton wants to make the Runcas understand Mr. Morgan’s anger—wants in a more general sense to draw all the parties together—but she cannot, and in the end simply looks like an old fool, on the hook to pay the damages.

Miss Winton wanted to let Mr. Morgan see that he was wrong about these people. She wanted to have it proved here and now that the Runcas were human and would understand an accident, that they, like anyone else, were capable of respecting a touchy caretaker. She wished to speak the truth, to lead the truth into the open and let it act for itself between Mr. Morgan and the Runcas.

‘We’ll make a note of everything,’ Mrs. Runca said to her, ‘and let you have the list of the damage and the cost of it.’

The mounting destruction of the apartment has some comic energy, as Mr. Morgan destroys the vase, lies about it, burns the carpet they’re trying to dry, lies about that, and gets drunker and more belligerent, finally threatening to kill the Runcas. It achieves a kind of Fawlty Towers-esque British slapstick, and I laughed in a couple of places. But the seeming main purpose of this rather interminable piece is the laborious dramatizing of various class issues. My hunch is that this story might be more enjoyable and/or decipherable for a British reader, for whom the subject of class might be more inherently interesting than it is for an American reader, and who might appreciate various niceties and references I may have missed.

Still, the basic gist seems fairly clear. The story is set in an apartment building that becomes nicer on the higher floors, and the characters are all metonyms for the class strata they occupy. The Runcas are rich, Mrs. Winton is comfortable, Mr. Morgan is lower class and survives on tips, and Bianca is even lower than Mr. Morgan on the class spectrum: a vulnerable young immigrant girl. The story dramatizes the impossibility of speaking across class divides: the lower classes will always resent the upper classes, and the middle class, protecting its own interests and fearing demotion, cannot bridge the gap. Further, Mrs. Winton, the focal character, represents the tenuous position of the middle to upper-middle class. Not only can she not meaningfully or usefully bring the working class and the rich together, she is reviled by both. Mr. Morgan hates her because he sees her, somewhat accurately, as a de facto agent of his economic control; the Runcas hate her because she is indistinguishable from the working class, just one more aggravating pleb to be dealt with. Mrs. Winton, paralyzed by fear of reprisal, mealy-mouthed good intentions, a vague sense of the injustice of it all, and a general desire to not rock the boat, in the end does nothing, and in this sense, she reminds me not a little of the Democratic party and modern liberalism in 2021.

Having written this out, I find myself liking the story quite a bit more than I first thought! Still, in the end, despite whatever political value it may contain, it’s dramatically inert and overlong. That said, in my estimation, it’s the first semi-dud in seven early stories, before Trevor even began to hit his masterly stride, so not bad!

Join me next week, when I’ll discuss the excellent, unnerving “In at the Birth.”

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of two novels: The Grand Tour (Doubleday 2016) and The Hotel Neversink (2019 Tin House Books). His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, VICE, The Iowa Review, and many other places. His podcast, Fan’s Notes, is an ongoing discussion about books and basketball. Find him online at adamofallonprice.com and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.

2 comments:

  1. I’m really enjoying this read-along, and in particular, the surprising fact that even in these short stories, it is possible to get such different readings.

    “it’s dramatically inert and overlong.”

    I felt the drama of the awful bullying by Mr. Morgan so viscerally that I had to take a break from reading. That feeling so overwhelmed everything else about the story that I paid no attention to the preposterous set-up and unsatisfying conclusion. The whole tale telescoped down to those middle moments as Mr. Morgan gets to drinking and then unleashes his mayhem. Maybe I’m again the headmasters of our last tale, hearing the story I’m listening for despite what Trevor is telling. But I still can’t think about Mr. Morgan’s behavior without cringing. I want to shout to Mrs. Winton that she’s making a mistake in trying to treat him as simply misunderstood or disadvantaged – that giving an inch will mean losing it all. Maybe I’m just sensitized in this political climate to what happens when you treat bad actors as if they had principles and as if any differences could be resolved with a little compromise and understanding.

  2. Tim,

    That’s so interesting. I couldn’t help but read it as an almost coded statement about class, but yeah, on a personal level it really is this brutal piece about a drunken man pushing around an old lady. My feeling remains that in either case, about 2-3 pages could be trimmed out, but I think if I’d have less felt that way if I’d read it more through your lens.

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