When I began this project, I was both attracted to and concerned about William Trevor’s seeming irrelevance to modern literature. As I mentioned in the introduction, an undeniably appealing aspect of the Trevor oeuvre is how absolutely unconnected it is to what is being written and discussed in the 21st century. Because I spend a fair amount of my time on literary Twitter, I am buffeted by daily storms of taste and outrage, and there is something deeply soothing about spending offline time with someone utterly detached from—dead to—the Discourse. It would be difficult, as a thought experiment, to think of someone published in the last two decades further away in their aesthetics or subject matter from Lauren Oyler. The third-person POV, the elderly people, the largely apolitical concerns, the damp fustiness: I found these irrelevancies an enticement.
And yet, to spend over a year reading and thinking about the stories of someone who manifestly does not matter to the present moment felt daunting. I realize, of course, that in one sense Trevor matters in a non time-bound way, as all great writers do—great writing always matters, always has something to say. But would he be too uncontemporaneous for people to care? That, I suppose, would be for readers to say, but I have found it surprisingly to not be the case.
Trevor’s fiction is, in its essence, queer fiction. The monolith of the Catholic Heteronormative Domestic-Life Industrial Complex is, more or less, the great foil and antagonist of his stories. The Trevor oeuvre is populated by people at the fringes, if not entirely off the map, of mainstream sexual society. Lifelong virgins, spinsters, alcoholics, the mentally ill, isolated country folks: characters excluded from the world and therefore excluded from both the advantages and—more often—the degradations of married sexual life. This division, over an extended reading of Trevor’s work, begins to feel like a critique of heterosexual society.
“A Choice of Butchers” arrays the narrator’s grotesque and brutal butcher father against his assistant and lodger, Mr. Dukelow. The father is loud, large, boorish, drunken, unfaithful, and clumsy, missing two fingers and a thumb due to his inexpert way with the butcher’s blade; Mr. Dukelow is small, quiet, decent, sober, empathetic, and elegant in both manner and slicing of chops. The narrator, a seven-year-old boy, sees his father kissing the maid and confides in Mr. Dukelow, who, as the narrator says, would have made a better father for him, a better partner for the maid, a better husband for his mother. Perhaps needless to say, the father—representing the traditional domestic world—wins out, and the story ends with Mr. Dukelow fired and banished from the house.
At several points in the story, Mr. Dukelow’s possible homosexuality is referred to. The narrator tells us:
Once, saying good-night to me, Mr. Dukelow had unexpectedly given me a kiss, but it was a kiss that wasn’t at all like the kiss I had observed in the hall [the father kissing the maid]. Mr. Dukelow had kissed me because my mother was too tired to climb the stairs; he had kissed me in case I felt neglected.
Later, regarding the affections of the maid, the father says to the postman, “Henry Dukelow wouldn’t be interested… he’s not a marrying man. Amn’t I right, Henry?” The father’s hostility to Dukelow is expressed, here and elsewhere in the story, in coded and suggestive reference to Dukelow’s putative queerness. But what he is really hostile to, what the narrator expresses in the quote above, is Mr. Dukelow’s sensitivity and tenderness, qualities that seem inimical to a well-adjusted married man of this period.
Whether Mr. Dukelow is meant to be a gay character or not, he is arrayed outside the heteronormative domestic culture that, in addition to the father’s loathsome masculinity, is embodied by the maid’s engagement to a man who works at the bank and the narrator’s sister’s surprise pregnancy. Mr. Dukelow, the narrator correctly perceives, is too good for this, too good for the squalor and bullying and drinking and consolatory orgasms that comprise the straight world’s workaday life. This is a theme we see repeated throughout the Collected Stories, for instance in “Nice Day at School,” in which the Dukelow role is assumed by Miss Whitehead, a virginal schoolmarm who exists in a plane above the miasma of married life.
It is fascinating how, on this point, Trevor’s fiction stands apart from many of his post-war contemporaries across the pond, the Bellows, Roths, and Updikes—fiercely straight writers who take domestic life, with all of its nagging and cheating and screaming children, as a given. Trevor’s fiction does not, and in this way, despite all its musty trappings, it feels more contemporary than most of the fiction of its day.
Next time around: “O Fat White Woman.”