by Adrienne Perry
As a writer who often and unexpectedly unveils the most shocking elements of my stories in their final pages, I was caught by the first sentence of William Trevor’s short story “Events at Drimaghleen”: “Nothing as appalling had happened before at Drimaghleen; its people had never been as shocked.” What was Trevor up to, suggesting such drama at the story’s start? Not only what was Trevor up to, but how would he manage the tension roused by this sentence?
Trevor’s slow release of the story’s dramatic events counterbalances the high stakes introduced at its beginning. Trevor’s tone, pacing, narrative distance, and emphasis also moderate the action, revealing the high drama in a manner that eventually guided me to see its role in the narrative beyond the triggering event.
Alluding to a horrific scene near the story’s beginning sets a tone and raises expectations; I read on in anticipation of learning about these “dramatic occurrences.” Trevor layers the first paragraph of “Events at Drimaghleen” with words and circumstances to encourage that curiosity without fully contextualizing it. Distress is mentioned, in addition to three anecdotes from Drimaghleen’s history. One after the other, these vignettes mount in their degree of strangeness and violence: “[A] woman known as the Captain’s wife had run away with a hunchbacked peddler . . . there’d been resistance in the hills and fighting in Drimaghleen itself. During the Troubles a local man had been executed in a field by the Black and Tans.” Trevor’s readers glean that none of these scenarios will compare to the “horror of the tragedy” in Trevor’s story.
Whatever this horror, Trevor seems in no hurry to tell us about it. Spoiler Alert: Before showing readers the double homicide and suicide that constitute the most “appalling” event in Drimaghleen’s history, Trevor slows the pace; after his opening paragraph, he temporarily places our expectations for high drama on hold. We turn from an execution to an everyday farm couple approaching this life-changing “day as they always did”: dressing, bathing, starting chores, and their wasted attempts to rouse an often-sluggish daughter. The pacing mirrors the scene’s quiet, domestic nature, with its pulling on of boots and its teakettles. The urgency of the first paragraph and its potential for high drama still exist in this scene, but they are muted—a dampening that lends a sinister quality to the McDowds’ otherwise typical morning. We’ll get our horror, but without melodrama.
This measured approach to the release of information does not diminish the scene’s overall narrative energy. Trevor’s first scene at the McDowds’ brims with tension because its pacing toys with our expectations. By providing early insight into the story’s eventual tragedy, Trevor has ensured that our anticipation colors all we see—from milking cows to the McDowds’ morning meal. Trevor’s creation of tension in this farmhouse scene, alongside his cultivation of the reader’s suspicions, relies on a canny use of narrative distance. The amount of information Trevor shares does not suggest irony on the scale of a Greek tragedy, but the omniscience and larger Drimaghleen context established in the narrative’s first lines drive the reader’s response.
Outside of the narrator, we are the only other souls informed enough to anticipate the shock. Trevor’s readers look for menace in otherwise mundane details. As Mrs. McDowd pounds on Maureen’s door—“Come on now, Maureen!”—the reader’s mind races forward in an attempt to place information in a larger, mysterious puzzle. We wonder, is Maureen dead or sick? Where is she, if not behind that door? When Mr. McDowd is finally “jolted . . . into an awareness that what had been wrong was that Maureen’s bicycle had not been leaning against the kitchen window-sill,” we suspect his sense of “wrong” is only half of the truth. Trevor’s readers know more than the McDowds, but we cannot claim farsightedness. We have enough insight to gather from Trevor’s emphasis on the McDowds that this will ultimately be their tragedy and that Maureen—from the moment she is discovered missing—will be at its center. We have enough insight to think her parents ought to hurry their breakfast, or to wince as Mr. McDowd calls Maureen “the little bitch.” The McDowds “both felt the same, anxious and cross at the same time, not wanting to believe the apparent truth. Their daughter had ungratefully deceived them. . . .” Readers appreciate the McDowds’ concern and yet see a disparity between their sense of Maureen’s deception and the anticipation of tragedy the narrator has cultivated.
The McDowds’ relative “apparent truth” dissolves as soon as Trevor shows us “their daughter lying beside the pump.” For different reasons, this is a pivotal moment for the McDowds and the reader. Hereafter, as we enter further into the horrors Trevor promised, the reader’s privileged perspective on the narrative narrows, its field eventually no wider than that of the McDowds’.
Does this shift in narrative distance mean that Trevor has broken his contract with his readers? No. The narrative addresses the devastating events suggested in its beginning. The emphasis on the McDowds, and Maureen in particular, is not misplaced. And this shift in perspective confirms that “Events at Drimaghleen” will take on other dimensions. Trevor does not expect his readers to find the story’s meaning solely in its violent, triggering event. The violence only matches the psychological pain underscored by the story’s final scene, as Mrs. McDowd “sat at the blue-topped table with her lips drawn back from her teeth, one short, shrill scream following fast upon another.”
Adrienne G. Perry grew up in Wyoming, earned her M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College in 2013, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. From 2014–2016 she served as Editor of Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts. Adrienne’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Black Warrior Review, Indiana Review, and Ninth Letter.