(by William Trevor) (1976)
There’s a moment in All The President’s Men, released the same year as Mr Trevor’s (Cox’s) novel, where Carl Bernstein says: “All these neat little houses in all these nice little streets, it’s hard to believe that something’s wrong in some of these little houses…” to which Bob Woodward replies, “No it isn’t.”
That is encapsulated neatly in The Children of Dynmouth, a wonderful little piece, where Child-From-Hell, Timothy Gedge, terrorizes a small town along the lines of the feral lads in Peter Weir’s cult classic, The Cars That Ate Paris (1974). But whereas the lads in Paris are physically intimidating, Gedge is more of a mental sadist, a macabre serial pest.
William Trevor, Irish master of the short story, expanded one such into this masterful novella, where Timothy (with his relentless and hideous joviality (‘Cheers!’); wistful sociopath’s smile; snooping; habit of talking his victims into flight, especially when he airs embarrassing and possibly artless disclosures about them in the presence of third parties; dreadful jokes) turns little Dynmouth upside-down. He’s always underfoot, prone to be trampled, and yet there’s some internal, infernal resource through which he springs free again.
The book commences, deliberately we think, in the most prosaic fashion; neat little houses, nice little streets – the first couple of pages read like a travellers’ guide or a pamphlet put-out by the local Chamber of Commerce. But then we start drilling down, intimately, into the lives of adults and their day-to-day, and various children, with their more timeless outlooks. And, appropriately on page 13, we meet lonely Timothy – “a youth of fifteen, ungainly due to adolescence, a boy with a sharp-boned face and wide, thin shoulders, whose short hair was almost white. His eyes seemed hungry, giving him a predatory look; his cheeks had a hollowness about them.”
Gedge, without apparent skills, confronts a likely working life at the town’s sandpaper factory, and dreams of stardom at the Spot the Talent comp held at Dynmouth’s annual Easter Fête. God knows why – it invariably features a lady singing Austrian songs in costume, a harmonica-player, a local pop band, an amateur conjurer, a man doing dog impressions, a schoolteacher reciting The Lady of Shalott, and last summer’s carnival queen singing Tie a Yellow Ribbon round the Old Oak Tree. Be that as it may, Timothy proposes a sock-o act, something different – a gruesome comedy turn that promises to be funny as a child molester. For that, he needs certain props, and sets about ‘persuading’ various townsfolk to assist, on the basis that he’ll keep their secrets.
Trevor unfolds this superbly, yet with humour and genuine compassion. There are no heroes and villains here, just humans, with all their joy, longing, despair, anger, frustration, guilt and terror. All wonderfully depicted, in a terse, dry style, free of flourish. And life in Dynmouth, more or less, goes on…