William Trevor’s “The Introspections of JP Powers” is what is often derisively called a “slice-of-life” story in writing workshops. We accompany Powers, a driving instructor, as he distractedly tutors an old lady, Miss Hobish, while ruminating about, variously: his insulting former boss, Roche; the difficulty of keeping his sweaty body clean; his hairy armpits and hairless chest; the secretary in Mr. Roche’s office whose breasts he admired; his friend or “friend” Mr. Ransome—a former underling in the RAF with Mr. Powers—who wants Powers to join Mr. Ransome’s infant supply company as a door-to-door salesman; taking a bath; his drinking routine on Sundays; his wife and children; and a former driving student he sexually harassed. In the course of story, Miss Hobish crashes his car, and he finally submits to Mr. Ransome, taking the strange sales job. We are not left with the sense that much will change, or improve, in Mr. Powers’s depressing existence.
Slice-of-life stories, which typically concern an arbitrary moment in a character’s life, are usually derided for lack of dramatic punch or point. Inasmuch as this story has a point, or “point,” I read it as something of an oblique commentary on the way average people live their lives and get by. We’re encouraged in this reading by the extraordinary final paragraph, the entirety of which I’ll quote here:
The sun was hot on his face as he sat in the Austin. His skin relaxed, that part of him happy in the heat. He closed his eyes and gave himself up to the tiny moment. The sun touched his hands on the steering wheel and warmed them, too. Beer in his stomach, sun on his skin: he had felt such cosseting before. He had lain in bed, stretched and at peace, warmly covered. The warmth of his wife had welcomed him and given him another version of simple sensuality. Blearily, an awareness stirred in J. P. Powers. He did not think in so many words that the excuse for his life lay in moments like these: only in what he received, since he contributed nothing. He did not think it because it was absurd when it was put like that, clarified and clinical. The feeling hammered at his brain, but no tendril stretched out to fashion it into thought. A cloud obscured the shaft of sunlight and the feeling evaporated, giving way to an afternoon depression. He switched on the ignition and drove the Austin for the last time, past Cave Crescent and Mortimer Road, out on Putney Hill and into the stream of traffic.
This paragraph elevates the story from a simple slice-of-life character study into something larger and more pointed. “Excuse for his life” is a remarkable phrase, and I read the sentence containing it several times. What it seems to be saying is that Mr. Powers cannot allow himself to understand that he is a useless person and, as such, that his life really only has intrinsic value during small, sensual moments like this. It’s an unusually brutal summary judgment of a character, almost O’Connorian, although O’Connor would at least grant Mr. Powers the dignity of a horrible epiphanic moment when he fully apprehends his life’s worthlessness. Trevor’s version is even more bleak, in its way—despite the title, J. P. Powers is not even allowed the story’s central introspection, although this is arguably a mercy. Trevor’s elegant narration separates itself from Mr. Powers’s consciousness like paper peeling off a wall in order to give the reader what Mr. Powers cannot give himself.
As a craft point, I’m reminded, a little, of Tobias Wolff’s famous “He did not remember” section in the last pages of “Bullet in the Brain.” It’s one of my favorite narrative moves, and one of the reasons I generally prefer third person, this snaky ability to render shadow consciousness, the things a character knows but doesn’t understand, intuits but cannot bring themselves to examine in the light. Most human consciousness, after all, exists on this level, in a gray dimness grading to total black, only occasionally lit up by the cold flame of tragedy or effortful moral examination.
The last clause of the story, “into the stream of traffic,” I read as Trevor perhaps slyly suggesting that Mr. Powers’s particular case is the general one. If this is Trevor’s intent, I find the judgment both persuasive and off-putting. Yes, it seems likely true that many, if not most, people live unhappy lives during which they do their level best to avoid contact with that unhappiness. At the same, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” always feels insufficient to me. The transcendentalists provide a better motto for short story writers in the form of Emerson’s exhortation from The Preacher:
‘For all our penny-wisdom, for all out soul-destroying slavery to habit, it is not to be doubted that all men have sublime thoughts.’
I’ll be back next week to discuss the title story of Trevor’s first collection, “The Day We Got Drunk on Cake.”