The William Trevor Reader: “An Evening With John Joe Dempsey”

As previously mentioned, William Trevor is underestimated as a horny writer. Among the titans of the short story form, his perv quotient is probably only matched or exceeded by Updike (Cheever’s work is also very horny, but it’s mostly a diffuse horniness that grades quickly into anxious fabulism). Sex, and the desire for sex, are an animating and surprisingly omnipresent feature in Trevor’s work—surprising given Trevor’s staid reputation, the woolen, dowdy aura of elderly Irishness. Why is this?

Updike is an instructive example. Updike writes directly at and about sex, as Trevor often does, but it means something different in Updike’s stories. Sex—which is to say, the successful completion of the act by a male protagonist after talking a woman into doing it—represents self-actualization, often artistic self-actualization. The most vivid example of this is in the (good, incredibly) story “Unstuck,” in which a man and wife team up to get their car out of a horrible snowdrift. At the same time, we learn of their problems in the bedroom, his of the erectile variety; hers of the orgasmic. By the end of the story, you may not be surprised to learn, sexual gratification has been achieved, and the car is free.

The problem of sex in most of Updike’s stories is mostly the problem of not having it. In “A+P,” Updike’s most enduringly famous story, the narrator Sam simply watches three girls in bathing suits in the grocery store where he works, watches the manager talk rudely to them, and quits because of it. The passivity of this set-up is more Trevorian than most of Updike’s canon, but the emotional-sexual fulcrum is still characteristically Updikean: the girls represent sex, which represents the fulfillments of adulthood, and further, the hope of class-mobility, and Sam quits in a kind of desperate solidarity with the (potentially false) promise of his own future.

In Trevor’s work, however, sex is virtually synonymous with loneliness, and this is spelled out more clearly in “An Evening With John Joe Dempsey” than any story yet. It’s an extremely simple story: John Joe Dempsey goes to the grocery for bacon, finds the proprietress, Mrs. Keogh, is at church, is given beer by the man, Mr. Lynch, watching the store and listens to his stories about prostitutes during the war, goes home for a depressing fifteenth birthday celebration, and goes to bed—all the while thinking about having sex with townswomen, and related, about his friendship with Quigley, the village idiot, with whom he spends his free time sharing peeping-Tom fantasies.

In almost any other author’s hands, the material would come off as dirty, but it does not here, and the reason for this is best expressed in its last lines:

He travelled alone, visiting in his way the women of the town, adored and adoring, more alive in his bed than ever he was at the Christian Brothers’ School, or in the grey Coliseum, or in the chip-shop, or Keogh’s public house, or his mother’s kitchen, more alive than ever he would be at the sawmills. In his bed he entered a paradise: it was grand being alone.

Characteristically, in the story, Trevor offers a bleak spectrum of occupiable places on the spectrum of sexuality. You can be a married man who lies to his wife in order to go to dances and flirt with other women; you can be a bachelor like Mr. Lynch, who, haunted by his brushes with the erotic, has forsworn sexuality to live with his mother; or you can be an outcast like Quigley, whose freedom to fantasize John Joe Dempsey deeply admires and envies. Having a sexually gratifying partnership is not offered as a possibility, as it so often is not in The Collected Stories.

The normal domestic situation, as typically illustrated or referred to in passing, is one of boredom and infidelity and commonplace deceit. Trevor’s view of sexuality in mid-century Catholic Ireland is one of essential hypocrisy and unhappiness—his characters often stand outside the adult sexual realm, and their pent-up sexuality acts as a sort of index of their solitude and therefore honesty. And to some extent, their freedom. John Joe Dempsey and Quigley, and Mrs. Whitehead in “Nice Day at School,” and even Mr. Jeffs in “The Table” all possess an essential simplicity of existence that the other characters have sacrificed in the name of access to the sexual marketplace. This monastic impulse, the privileging—however dubiously—of asceticism, morally counterbalances the general, pervading perviness.

Sex, for Updike, is freedom. There is no freedom in Trevor’s world, but sex is one more shackle. In sexlessness, which is to say, in silence, a person might at least maintain the freedom, or the free imagining anyway, of their personal dignity.

As a sidebar, Trevor is interesting and fairly singular in his sexual fixation on middle-aged and older women. Again, comparing him to Updike (and some of the other horny mid-century masters) is instructive. “A+P,” like much of Updike’s projected fantasy realm, is all nubility, all sleek calf and pert breast. Here is the introduction of Mrs. Keogh, a figure of erotic fascination, in “An Evening With John Joe Dempsey”:

She came breathlessly into the bar, with pink cheeks, her ungloved hands the colour of meat. She was a woman of advanced middle age, a rotund woman who approached the proportions that John Joe most admired. She wore spectacles and had grey hair that was now a bit windswept.

I suppose objectification is objectification, but the way Trevor’s fiction grants erotic status to older women—and to be clear, despite what sex may represent in Trevor’s stories, the depictions of these women are unmistakably, strongly erotic—is refreshing.

Next week, more Trevorian perviness, with “Kinkies.”

See Also: All Installments of The William Trevor Reader

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.

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