The William Trevor Reader: “Mr. McNamara”

In “Mr. McNamara,” a nameless male narrator examines his dead father’s friendship with a Mr. McNamara, a friend the father used to have drinks with while on business trips to Dublin at an old bar called the Fleming Hotel. The father would come home from these trips and relay Mr. McNamara’s opinions about de Valera and Churchill and whether Ireland should enter World War II, as well as anecdotes about Mr. McNamara’s bachelor life living with an alcoholic sister. For the narrator’s thirteenth birthday, Mr. McNamara sends him a beautiful little bejeweled dragon figurine that the narrator still treasures.

When the father is killed by an errant German bomb, the narrator is sent away to boarding school, and, one day, decides to make a bicycle trek to nearby Dublin, to lay eyes on the Fleming Hotel, a place that has lived in his imagination for years thanks to his father’s stories. At the Fleming, he drinks an illicit beer and becomes aware of a woman at the bar. When she leaves, the barman identifies the woman as Nora McNamara. Thereby does the narrator, at the end of the story, realize his father’s duplicity and infidelity, and come to despise him for it.

“Mr. McNamara” is a nice story, well-told and smartly paced. There’s a compelling turnaround about a third of the way in, after the description of the father’s travels to Dublin and the narrator’s birthday party: we realize that what we’ve been reading is a kind of sylvan prehistory that ends abruptly with the news that, the next day, the father died and everything changed. The twist at the end likewise works well enough, but it did put me in mind of a craft lesson I absorbed years ago and have never forgotten since, namely: if you want to have write a twist, it’s often better to put it at the midway point rather than the end.

The twist in “Mr. McNamara” is that the titular Mr. is, in fact, a Mrs., with whom the father was carrying on an affair. As written, we find this out in the second to last paragraph—on Christmas Day in the story—which sets up this conclusion:

I left the breakfast table and went to my bedroom. I wept there, and then washed my face in cold water from the jug on my wash-stand. I hated the memory of him and how he would have been that Christmas morning; I hated him for destroying everything. It was no consolation to me then that he had tried to share with us a person he loved in a way that was different from the way he loved us. I could neither forgive nor understand. I felt only bitterness that I, who had taken his place, must now continue his deception, and keep the secret of his lies and his hypocrisy.

Again, this is all stylish and well-written, but it’s worth imagining a version of the story in which the narrator finds out closer to the midpoint. In this version, perhaps, we would see the narrator forced to lie to his mother and siblings in order to protect their memory of the father. How might he respond? What pressure would it put him under? We would be allowed the fuller dramatic arc that this version of the story can only gesture at, having structurally allowed itself the briefest of denouements. This is actually a different way of articulating my point—when a twist doubles as dramatic climax, it provides very little room for the writer to reckon with the reconfiguration it presents; alternately, when a twist serves as a large plot point earlier in the narrative, the story can organically grow and change based on this new information. 

Like most craft advice, this is not by any means a hard and fast rule. Trevor’s version here is actually pretty effective, especially his clever use of narrative concealment leading up to the revelation of Mr. McNamara’s identity. The narrator’s journey to the Fleming Hotel takes place just two pages before the story’s end—the remainder of the story describes his night back at the boarding school afterward, and then his journey back home for Christmas. During this portion of narration, we are allowed a sense that something happened that night, but we are not told the full truth until the narrator stands in his bathroom. In this way, the narrator conceals his father’s crime from the reader, just as he conceals it from his family, and the burden of his secret knowledge is implied before it is expressed.

I’ll be back in late-July after a summer hiatus. Next up—in a few weeks— “Afternoon Dancing.”’

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. Have a good break, Adam. I shall look forward to your commentary on Afternoon Dancing, which – unusually for Trevor – handles the issue of race.

    I have read both of your novels now and loved them both! I read most of the Pulitzer winners and you are definitely Pulitzer material

  2. Thanks so much, Norman—yes “Afternoon Dancing” is a good one, but tricky to evaluate/discuss. And thank you for the kind words about the novels, from your mouth to the Pulitzer Committee’s ear! See you in a month

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