The William Trevor Reader: “Nice Day at School”

January 18, 2022 | 3 min read

This is a good one that inverts the usual Trevor elements—the main character, Eleanor, is an adolescent girl rather than elderly spinster, and rather than backgrounding the proceedings with pervy energy, the perviness is the main event: all the girls in Eleanor’s grade are losing their virginity, and as Eleanor holds out, she worries about becoming an old maid like her teacher Miss Whitehead. It isn’t just the schoolgirls having sex, either. Everyone in Eleanor’s life, including, or perhaps especially her parents, are doing it constantly. Her father, a nightclub bouncer, works all night and expects to come home to an artery-blocking fry up and shag—on both counts, Eleanor’s mother grimly obliges. In their lower-class world, sex is the main (free) vice and compensation, and rather than the freedom it’s meant to represent, Eleanor intuits what it really means, especially for women: pregnancy, debt, dependency, dismal marriage, violence, and squalor. At the end of the story, looking at her parents, she thinks fondly of Miss Whitehead, who is “complete and alone, having discarded what she wished to discard,” and that Miss Whitehead’s enviable fate is unavailable to her parents, and by extension herself: “… for them it was too late to escape to a room in which everything was clean.”

Sex, in the usual Trevor story, is a kind of background noise that occasionally becomes audible. Its function, typically, is ironic—as the characters uselessly strain against their limitations and the straitening power of time and age, the erotic hum reminds them and the reader of what they stand to lose: simple pleasure, humanness, joy. In “Nice Day at School,” sex is the encroaching agent, the inescapable force of constriction and diminution, and time is backgrounded as the ironic element. Time, Eleanor has in excess, and yet it’s an ironically fruitless bounty considering what seem to be her available options: Miss Whitehead and her frigid, lonely abstention or her parents (and Mrs. Rourke, Mr. Crumm, Liz Jones, et al.) and their filthy hopelessness.

A side note about Eleanor’s father: depressing though he is, he’s also a figure of fairly tasteless comedy. A former professional wrestler with a bad back, the former “Prince of Hackney,” so-called, now works as a bouncer in a posh nightclub and makes up stories about meeting Princess Margaret and Mia Farrow. When he finishes his outrageous breakfast and disappears into the bedroom with Eleanor’s mother, he’s described as making “the same kind of noise as he’d made in the wrestling ring.” Eleanor’s father is a reminder that the popular view of Trevor as a paragon of quiet taste—one that I find myself reflexively holding—is not quite accurate. Trevor’s style and narrative choices are quiet and impeccable, but he is also fond of the grotesque, even outright caricature.

As with the odd moments of horniness and perversity, the grotesque in Trevor’s fiction serves as a kind of countervailing force against the central theme of loss and the stately tone of sadness. One of the things about Trevor’s fiction that works so well is that, in presenting one of literature’s most serious and depressing views of human existence, it still manages not to take itself too seriously. The peeks up the skirt, Liz Jones getting laid standing up in the schoolyard, and the wrestling grunts from the bedroom serve the dual function of leavening the proceedings while deepening them. These are, after all, not just naughty bits of fun—they are the (re)actions of human beings who, feeling the walls closing in, cast around for any grim pleasure that might provide a sense of agency and take their mind off their life.

In the words of Jarvis Cocker in Pulp’s great “Common People”:

You’ll never fail like common people, you’ll never watch your life slide out of view

And you dance and drink and screw, because there’s nothing else to do.

Trevor is not a class warrior. To my mind, for an Irish/English writer, he is only moderately concerned with class. It appears often in his stories, but usually as a secondary element that goes to character or else ratchets up other, more important tensions. But when he does write explicitly about the poor, as he is here, the sense of frustrated helplessness that pervades his work is amplified and sharpened.

See you next week, when I’ll be discussing “The Original Sins of Edward Tripp.”

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 and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.

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