The William Trevor Reader: “Death in Jerusalem”

September 20, 2022 | 3 min read

Chekhov once said that he wanted the endings of his stories to “[shift] the center of gravity in order to produce maximum thought.” This aspiration, in my view, doesn’t just describe what good endings do, but what good stories do. Endings are not, after all, simply tacked on to the last bit of a narrative. They are its culmination, the place the story was always secretly going; if a good ending lets the cat out of the bag, the cat had to be in the bag to begin with. Put another way, as my teacher and friend J. Robert Lennon puts it, “A good ending is both surprising and inevitable.”

“Death in Jerusalem” has such an ending, a devastating turn that reaches back and reframes what you’ve read, what you didn’t even understand you were reading. Francis and Paul are brothers from County Tipperary. Francis is quiet, meek, a bit frail, and 37—a bachelor (of course) who lives at home and works in his elderly mother’s shop. Paul, 50, is rumbustious (in the story’s memorable phrasing), extroverted, and keen on liquor; he’s also a successful priest in a large San Francisco diocese who runs charitable organizations all over the world. Paul talks Francis into accompanying him to Jerusalem—a lifelong dream for devout Francis—and on their first night there, Paul receives the news that their mother has died. He decides to keep it from Francis, knowing it will spoil the trip for his brother, and selfishly not wanting to hurry back himself. The funeral is delayed, but after a disappointing trip to Gesthemane and Christ’s manger, Francis finds out the truth. He is understandably upset, and Paul obligingly reschedules the flight for the next day. We leave Paul stumbling drunk out of the hotel bar, covered with cigarette ash and the judgmental stares of the other guests.

The diametric opposition of these two men renders Chekhov’s shifting center of gravity completely clear. In the beginning, Francis is pitiable; in the end, Paul is. What seems in the beginning like weakness in Francis—his diffidence and caution, his blind maternal devotion—comes to seem like strength by the end, as he possesses the moral clarity to identify Jerusalem as a tourist trap and to immediately go home when he learns of his mother’s death. What seems in the beginning like strength in Paul—his boisterous freedom and worldliness—comes to seem like weakness in the end, as he nurses an alcoholic hatred of his mother. The real trick of the story is to implicate the reader for her initial assumptions about Francis and Paul. Naturally, a shy virginal man who works and lives with mother is to be pitied. Naturally, extroverted freedom is to be desired. Naturally, a religious layperson is less spiritual than a priest. Naturally. 

This is the “maximal thought” the story produces. Do we make these kinds of assumptions in our own lives, and about others? Of course we do. And we are often wrong, as we are when—with little proddings by the story—we admire Francis and pity Paul. This is, it might be said, an especially neat and apposite narrative trick for a story about two Christian men visiting the birthplace of Christ. It stops short of a moral lesson, as good stories always should, but it is nonetheless instructive in its way. 

It’s worth noting, as a sidebar, how well Trevor writes about non-Irish places, especially the Mediterranean and near-east. Like John Cheever in Italy, he seems imaginatively refreshed by getting away from home, and he writes with an alert tourist’s intent, vivid appreciation of these (to him) exotic destinations:

Tourists heavy with cameras thronged the Via Dolorosa. Brown, barefoot children asked for alms. Stall-keepers pressed their different wares: cotton dresses, metal-ware, mementoes, sacred goods. ‘Get out of the way,’ Father Paul kept saying to them, genially laughing to show he wasn’t being abrupt. Francis wanted to stand still and close his eyes, to visualize for a moment the carrying of the Cross. But the ceremony of the Stations, familiar to him for as long as he could remember, was unreal. Try as he would, Christ’s journey refused to enter his imagination, and his own plain church seemed closer to the heart of the matter than the noisy lane he was now being jostled on. ‘God damn it, of course it’s genuine,’ an angry American voice proclaimed, in reply to a shriller voice which insisted that cheating had taken place. The voices argued about a piece of wood, neat beneath plastic in a little box, a sample or not of the Cross that had been carried.

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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