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Grace and Gravity

DEATH IN SUMMER.\o7 By William Trevor (Viking: 214 pp., $23.95)\f7

September 13, 1998|RICHARD EDER

In "Felicia's Journey," his last novel, William Trevor constructed a terrifying figure--a stalker and sex-murderer--out of the shabbiest and most banal of materials. It was as if Dr. Frankenstein had used unbaked dough for his monster instead of wires and electricity.

Albert, in "Death in Summer," suggests a similar terror out of a similar banality. Poor, ignorant, working as a cleaner in the London Underground and with a clammy compulsion to get hold of young female drifters, he is a shock waiting to detonate. Indeed, we read much of "Death" with the same mounting agony as we do "Felicia," stretched along the taut economy and the sentience of Trevor's prose.

Indeed there is a shock. But it is the shock of saintliness, something as monstrous in its own way as an ax murder and with a similar power to shatter. In "Summer," possibly the most perfect of Trevor's novels and certainly the most surprising, all assumptions are overturned. To begin with, those of the two obdurately privileged figures into whose lives Albert and a protege erupt. Then, those of readers who, embarked for horror, find themselves disembarking at redemption.

Trevor is a master at furnishing realistic detail and withholding it. He knows when to suggest, when to suspend, when to mystify and when to reveal. His narrative has the turns, the hesitations, the flashes of wit and the broken configurations of dance; he is a Balanchine of fiction.

As with Graham Greene, whom Trevor in some respects resembles--notably in his sudden starring roles for humble and humiliated figures--a current runs beneath the entertainment of story and character. One might call it spiritual (bearing in mind that only those spirits are admitted who possess a sound grasp of fleshly carpentry). In any event, the true suspense of Trevor's fiction lies in moral surprise and moral switchbacks. The revelation is not in action but in identity; often the climax is a conversion.

"Death" begins as if Trevor were describing simultaneously the Earth and an asteroid about to hit it. For the first, there is Thaddeus Davenant, the just-widowed possessor of a pleasant estate and comfortable fortune. He is a decent but chilly man; his late wife, Letitia--source of the fortune--was an innocent whom he never managed to love but who, in the six years they were married, was beloved throughout the neighborhood. It was while cycling back from a benevolent errand that she was hit by a car at a blind corner.

Thaddeus is left with a baby daughter for whom he discovers a profound attachment--an emotion he had never experienced before. His mother-in-law, Mrs. Iveson, has come to help out while they advertise for a baby nurse. She is as chilly as he, particularly since she suspects he married her daughter for her money. But Trevor is not simply portraying the coldness of the English gentry, though he gives it some splendid licks. Thaddeus and his mother-in-law are two people stunted in their emotions, isolated in privilege and not so much unfeeling as untouched. They will be touched.

To the asteroid, then. The scene shifts from golden countryside to a grimy London tenement where Albert lodges with his invalid landlady and where he has introduced Pettie, a waif rescued from the streets. Dead-eyed, his head resembling an egg and his voice toneless, Albert interrogates her about her job interview with a man who, she told him, was "left with this kid at a mansion." With his weird, unctuous solicitousness and grim command, Albert strikes us as a creep, a criminal and perhaps worse. Thaddeus (Pettie's interviewer, of course) is evidently being set up for horror.

In fact, what Albert and Pettie, Thaddeus and Mrs. Iveson and even Thaddeus' saturnine butler are being set up for (the butler is a wonderfully elusive figure recalling another patch of English literary Greenery: Henry) is transformation. More exactly, it is our view of them that will steadily be transformed.

Trevor's philosophy, applied with formidable literary elegance, suggests that damnation and grace are not opposites but neighbors: of the same room, the same bed, all but of the same body. He doses us with various forms of distrust or distaste for his characters and frequently, startlingly, purges them and us.

Almost without our seeing how, for instance, Trevor switches the image of Thaddeus' dead wife into something more than that of a mild and deferential do-gooder. "A Piero," he describes her face at one point. Suddenly we sense not passive benevolence but angelic force. "Is innocence the same as goodness?" wonders Mrs. Iveson, beginning her own transformation out of cool maternal condescension.

Letitia's posthumous disruption goes on: Her baby is its agent. In Thaddeus it has lit the first spark of passion he has known; it will bring him and his mother-in-law toward each other. The latter will decide to stay.

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