There's no disputing the gifts of modulation and observation that William Trevor brings to his short stories. Trevor's work gives the impression of bringing into focus lives that already exist outside of his pages. In his latest collection, "After Rain," he slips effortlessly into the various milieus (largely rural Irish) of his stories and the consciousness of his characters. Those characters range from a mother who suspects her son of the murder of a young woman, to a 15-year-old Protestant farm boy who has a visitation from a woman he believes is a saint, to an elderly country couple rejected by their urban son on their yearly celebration of his birthday. Trevor has a sort of genius for getting at the textures of parched lives. There wasn't a page where I doubted the accuracy of his writing. And I don't think I could name a drabber, more humorless collection of stories if you put a gun to my head.
In "After Rain," Trevor seems so intent on the feel of his characters' lives, on getting things just right, that he neglects to collapse the distance between them and the reader (the way the greatest humanist filmmakers do). The effect -- the result not of cruelty but perhaps of unconscious condescension -- is of an author dutifully observing specimens under glass: "His mother offered him salad and another slice of cold bacon. She had fried the remains of the champ they'd had in the middle of the day: potatoes mashed with butter and spring onions now had a crispy brown crust. She dolloped a spoonful on to Milton's plate beside the bacon and passed the plate back to him."
Perhaps it's unfair to compare Trevor to another Irish writer, but making my way through "After Rain," I yearned for Edna O'Brien, who covers some of the same territory, and who really deserves the mantle given Trevor: the best short story writer in the world. Reading her is like picking up ripe, bursting fruit and having the juice run through your fingers. "After Rain" is like handling dried flowers that crumble at the touch.