Bravado by William Trevor

If you think you’re too old to write about contemporary young characters, take your cue from Irish short story master William Trevor, who wrote “Bravado”, about young people and night-clubbing culture, at almost 80 years of age. Note that the story is not set when he himself was young, but in the mid noughties.

William Trevor had a long writing career, and as times changed, he incorporated modern technology into his work rather than write at a specific time of his youth. But at no stage are his stories about how modernity interacts with us. His stories are about humanity. Humans don’t essentially change, and this explains why he was able to write with confidence about contemporary young people as he himself grew old. (A reviewer at The Guardian said that Trevor ‘fell flat on his face’ trying to write about young people. I note with interest that the reviewer who wrote that is himself not young.) The fact that Trevor describes the young men as ‘youths’ suggests he knows he himself is not one; nor is he (as writer) trying to pass himself off as one of them. That said, I’d be interested to know what actual young people think of this story and, regardless, this would be a great story to analyse with young adults.

Other writing lessons from “Bravado” include:

  • How to open a story with a roving focalisation, eventually settling upon close third person
  • Wonderful interiority of characters
  • How to economically set up an ominous landscape
  • In common with typical lyrical short stories, “Bravado” is an example of a story in which the ‘battle scene’ is not the climax; the aftermath of the battle is the meat of the thing. So if you’re not interested in the theatrics of violence, this is the story for you.

THE PLOT OF BRAVADO IN A NUTSHELL

Aisling, a teenage girl, witnesses a terrible crime committed by her boyfriend in a moment of drunken posturing. When the boyfriend is arrested and no other options are left to her, she finally admits to the police that she was present at the scene of the crime.

Fiction Writers’ Review

“Bravado” is one of Trevor’s later stories, of course. Along with about 50 others, it was published by The New Yorker (the January 15, 2007 issue). You can also find “Bravado” in his collection Cheating At Canasta (published by Viking).

Alternatively:

Read “Bravado” at The New Yorker in 2007. (May be behind a paywall.)

Listen to Elizabeth Strout read it aloud here, and discuss her reader response with with the New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman.

SETTING OF “BRAVADO”

William Trevor is described as a ‘regionalist’ writer because he sets most of his stories in a particular place and is therefore associated with that place, which is Ireland. (He sets some of his stories in England too, though.)

Trevor was interested in small town life and the social interactions that happen in small, connected social groups. Some of his stories are set in cities, such as this one. Even when he sets a story in a city, there’s a sense of a subculture/community/village. Here we have interactions between neighbours which feels ‘village-like’, and the scene in which strangers meet each other at a nightclub and take off together also feels kind of village-y — trust extended to strangers, on the assumption that we are all socially connected.

“Bravado” revolves around The Star night club which appears to be a geolocatable place in Dublin but isn’t really. (At least, I can’t find any Sunderland Avenue, Goodchild Street, St. Stephen’s Church or Blenning Road.) However, after the incident, Manning and Aisling make out in the geolocatable Spireview Lane.

The detail that places this story firmly in its time: People are carrying mobile phones, but a young person like Aisling is getting her news from the newspapers. Today I’d expect anyone, young people especially, to be turning to their phones for news.

NARRATION OF “BRAVADO”

If you’ve ever taken part in a critique group you’ll have been exposed to the accusation of ‘head-hopping‘. Amateur writers frequently accuse each other of this when one ‘fails’ to stay firmly inside a character’s head. This is problematic for the group when no allowance is given for the fact that writers sometimes choose to ‘head hop’, and that many of our most celebrated writers move in and out of heads with ease. (Caveat: Switching focalisation can be done badly, but is not a problem unless it’s done badly.)

“Bravado” offers up an excellent example of frequent switches in focalisation. The ‘camera’ moves from character to character and we see the world through their eyes. This actually adds to the ominous mood of the piece. This ‘camera’ (really our mind’s eye) moves from person to person sort of like a shark underwater, and it’s almost as if someone (sure, us) is slowly selecting its prey.

This ‘city as ocean’ metaphor is commonly utilised in crime stories. It doesn’t even have to be a city — it’s often a town near a seaside (e.g. Broadchurch, in which the literal camera does in fact move like a fish underwater to establish its ominous vibe in the pilot episode.)

When this roving focalising camera has done its work of introducing us to the main cast, and has helped to establish the ominous vibe of the piece, Trevor finally settles upon a single focalising character: Aisling. There are major advantages to single-character focalisation, so in “Bravado”, with its switched up focalisation at the beginning and singular focalisation for the main part, Trevor makes the best of both choices.

There’s no good reason why they need to go to the dye works, other than for the boys to show off to the girls. This dye factory has an urban legend/supernatural vibe to it, with ghosts from the past:

They were going by the dye works now, where Manning had once climbed over the high spiked railings. That had been for Aisling, too, and a girl called Maura Bannerman. The security lights had been triggered and through the railings they had watched Manning roaming about, from time to time peering in at the downstairs windows of the lumpy red brick building that was said to have been a lunatic asylum once.

Behind her Aisling heard Kilroy telling the girl he had monopolized about that night. At the top of the railings, razor wire was woven through the spikes, he said, adding to the hazards: none of them knew how Manning had done it, especially since he was a bit drunk then, too.

CHARACTERS OF “BRAVADO”

In his short fiction, Trevor often offers up two different responses in response to a moral dilemma, represented in two different characters. In this case we have:

  1. Manning juxtaposed against his victim, Dalgety. Are both ‘as bad as each other’? Which of the two men is worse? (This same question is asked in many versions of the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin“. A more modern crime story, TV series Happy Valley also delves into the various points at which men sit on a moral continuum, between ‘Good Guys’ and super evil.)
  2. Two girls juxtaposed against each other. One comes forward, the other stays silent about her bystander role. I feel Aisling has succumbed to the ‘freeze’ state of fight, flight or freeze.
  3. Ailsing’s father juxtaposes against himself, because we first ‘meet’ him when he’s angry with her (for riding on a bike with an untrustworthy boy) and next when he is gentle with her.

Because Trevor intends not to sit inside any single character’s head just yet, he avoids naming characters for a long while, instead describing them as archetypes:

Youth One: in shirtsleeves although it was chilly, the arms of a red anorak tied around his shoulders, wants to join the Merchant Navy.

Youth Two: wore a black woollen jersey above ragged jeans, wants to work in car sales, his uncle’s business.

We will soon learn that one of these youths is called Dalgety. He is on his own after his mat peels off to go home.

Next Trevor offers a description of a figure who will only appear once, and I believe this is partly to flesh out the scene and partly to divide two separate groups of young people from each other:

The Indian: manager at an establishment near the night club (a takeaway shop?), used to trouble. A trickster at getting annoying drunk people to leave. (He pretends to call the cops.)

Now to the group of five:

Manning (“Mano”/ Martin): tallest in the bunch of five young people, red hair, ‘an air of insouciance’ (doesn’t give a shit), the leader of this group. It’s tempting after this story to think of this guy as a sociopath. But I have heard psychologists talk about warning signs, and when determining the potential sociopathy of a young person, they are especially interested in whether violence is exacted when the young person is on their own. This seems to be acknowledgement of the fact that people can behave horribly violently, no different from a sociopath, when in groups. Pack mentality brings out the worst. Manning’s name is possibly symbolic: This is a boy trying to become a young man, man turned into a verb.

Aisling: Manning’s girlfriend, pretty. Younger than Manning by more than a year. The narrator stays outside her head at first, but the readers are told that she understands the boys are showing off about their experience with girls for her and Francie’s benefit. A Year 11 student at a convent school. Aisling has clearly learned some life lessons from her father. She knows her father would describe Manning’s actions as ‘playing the big fellow’.

Donovan: Manning and Kilroy’s friend. “Donovan was considered to be dense. Almost as tall as Manning, he was bulkier, clumsy in his movements, slow of speech.”

The second girl: Her name, “Francie” is secondary to her status as ‘another girl’, which is how the boys see her. She has glommed onto this group of four because she wants company walking home. “Often called a little thing, but deliberate and determined in her manner. She, too, was pretty, but less dramatically so than Aisling”. (The narrator ranks girls by order of prettiness presumably because this is how the boys view them, but an interesting question is whether readers have been acculturated to expect this ranking, too. Are people not ranking girls by order of prettiness all the damn time?)

Kilroy: Manning and Donovan’s friend. Is trying to hook up with Francie. “Kilroy had slit eyes that aptly suggested an untrustworthy nature…Kilroy had a stunted appearance, accentuated by oiled black hair sleekly brushed straight back, making the top of his head seem flat.”

After the incident, we are introduced to an old woman. In a thumbnail character sketch we know everything we need to know about her:

At No. 6 Blenning Road, the elderly woman who had lived alone there since she was widowed seven months earlier was roused from a dream in which she was a child again. She went to the top of her stairs, leaned over the bannister, and shouted in the direction of the hall door, asking who was there. But all that happened was the ringing of the doorbell again. It would take more than that, she told herself, to get her to open her door at this hour.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “BRAVADO”

Trevor builds an ominous atmosphere by describing a place. We leave the place, but this wasn’t simply a “McGuffin setting” Trevor was building — he brings us back to it.

SHORTCOMING

The story opens with a description of setting. Done well, setting can feel like a character in its own right:

The leaves had begun to fall. All along Sunderland Avenue on the pavement beneath the beech trees there was a sprinkling, not yet the mushy inconvenience they would become when more fell and rain came, which inevitably would be soon.

Trevor utilises the symbolism of seasons, in which autumn precedes winter, which of course means darkness and death. Autumn is useful like that, and is one reason why I don’t think Hallowe’en works here in Australia, even though it’s catching on. (Hallowe’en cannot be a spring tradition!)

Trevor specifies beech trees. Katherine Mansfield utilises a beech tree in her (very different short story, “The Escape“). Without getting deep into the symbolism of trees, which gets a bit woo woo to be fair, deciduous trees seem to do a better job of reminding us that life has its cycles, and eventually ends. Leaves that drop their leaves every year remind us of fate, the inevitable passing of time, and they seem to expose themselves — their own skeletons. Yes, there is something quietly ominous about deciduous trees.

By opening with a description of setting rather than introducing character, Trevor is setting up a story about a community rather than an individual. The odd middle-class sociopath aside, whenever crime takes place, the crime is an outworking of a community problem. Also, since Trevor chose the ‘head-hopping’ mode of narration for the opening of this story, it was a good choice to start with setting because contemporary readers are primed to expect the first character introduced to be the ‘main character’ (whatever that means).

As the story progresses, Aisling gradually becomes the ‘main character’. If in doubt about who the main character is, ask: Who changes the most over the course of the story? (Technically that’d be Dalgety, who starts off alive and ends up dead, but we’re not talking ‘changes in circumstance’, here, we’re talking character arc in terms of ‘self-revelation/anagnorisis). Aisling goes from being pretty, lively, fully immersed in her world to diminished as a person, forever carrying the burden of guilt. Instead of going into a public facing job she goes into educational publishing, which is a perfectly good job, but not the job I’d have guessed for the Aisling we meet at the beginning of this story, the Aisling who performs on stage.

DESIRE

Aisling is written as a well-brought up girl who is nonetheless driven hormonally to hang out with the tall, magnetic Manning, a year older and who seems to bolster her by telling her she’s drop-dead gorgeous even though she herself doesn’t think so. (This is one great tragedy of teaching girls to be heavily critical of their own looks.)

Aisling wants a fun night out. After that, her desire changes: She wants to distance herself emotionally from the tragedy that went down.

OPPONENT

Manning is Aisling’s romantic opponent but ‘romantic’ opponent doesn’t cut it: This guy is capable of ruining her life.

PLAN

The young people are on a kind of mythic journey through the city, starting out at the Star night club, stopping off for (I deduce) Indian takeaway, which is near a canal — the man-made equivalent of a symbolic river. The five are off on a mission, though it’s the kind of drunken hook-up mission which is a non-mission, geographically speaking.

I’m strangely put in mind of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, also comprising three masculo- coded characters (Patriarchal Julian [Manning], Dick and George) plus Anne and a dog, who tags along and often conveys messages about baddies. Like The Famous Five, this group is out to simply have fun. They run into trouble along the way. Very much unlike The Famous Five, this trouble is entirely of the group’s own making.

This short story feels to me like a horrible subversion of a children’s cosy mystery novel.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

As Dalgety would experience the shock, the reader experiences it, too: Dalgety is attacked when he least expects it. The horribly violent incident is described in appropriately unadorned prose. Trevor emphasises quietness.

Nobody spoke while the assault was taking place, not in the garden, not on the road.

Trevor emphasises the quietness by juxtaposing with Aisling’s memory of the sounds of the night-club. This has the effect of adding a non-diegetic soundtrack, at least to those of us who’ve watched a lot of TV and film:

Something of the headiness of the night club seemed to be there again, something of the music’s energy, of the wildness that was often in a face as it went by on the dance floor before it was sucked into the suffocating closeness of the crowd. Still nobody spoke when they all moved on, in a bunch again.

Just as touches of humour serve to heighten pathos of a story, the odd puncturing of silence serve to emphasise the quiet. The ‘energy of violence’ is created with a clap to scare a cat, with distant sirens, with a pounding on the hood of a car. This banging is forming a leitmotif which will lead up to the ‘bang’ of the death.

Note that the murder is not the ‘climax’ of the story. The death scene would be the climax in certain genre stories, but this particular narrative is about the aftermath of a death, not the build-up to and the moment of death itself.

The story turns on something that is not quiet. There’s a build-up to a violent event but this is not the climax. The climax is the aftermath.

Note how Trevor doesn’t tell us straight that Manning is the one who exacted the violence. We deduce it, because we are told what Donovan, Kilroy and the girls are doing.

MORAL DILEMMA

In the immediate aftermath, when Aisling believes the victim got up on his feet (he may have, before suffering bleeding and inflammation to the brain), she is morally conflicted. She knows Donovan’s sister — Dalgety’s supposed victim — by name:

She wished it hadn’t happened, but thought about Hazel Donovan and before she finished her cocoa wondered if she really wished it.

ANAGNORISIS

Ailsing is scrabbling around trying to find a justifiable reason for her boyfriend’s sudden act of violence. At first it seems that Manning has killed the boy for simply being a nerd. Then the boys start talking about Donovan’s sister, who is now under psychiatric care after a persistent boy went too far with her.

Aisling concludes from this segue that it was Dalgety who is the boy responsible.

So that was it, Aisling reflected, not saying anything herself. She felt relieved, aware of a relaxation in her body, as if her nerves had been strung up and no longer were.

But notice how Trevor encourages us, as readers, to make the same conclusion as Aisling, based on nothing more than timing and a segue? This is a cognitive bias necessary to our functioning in society, and one that storytellers make big use of all the time. But is Trevor instead asking us, as readers, to think more critically about our human tendency to jump to the conclusions that satisfy us?

Missing from its single page was what had been missing, also, during the trial: that the victim had been a nuisance to Donovan’s sister.

Why did the incident with Donovan’s sister not come up during the trial? My reading is this: Because it had nothing to do with Dalgety. I believe the boys were thinking instead of a different incident in which Manning had also beaten a kid up. It remains unknown to the reader (as it does to Aisling) why, exactly, Dalgety was beaten up. Perhaps Manning had simply developed a taste for violence, and beat Dalgety up for existing ‘Manning’s world as an anorak wearing ‘nerd’. I experience a delayed decoding of the flashing of Manning’s white teeth: I feel this is the point he turns into a ‘werewolf’ — realism version — and loses all reason, succumbing to simple bloodlust. When someone’s lizard brain takes over, there doesn’t have to be a reason for violence. Aisling blames herself in the end; she knows he’d done it to impress her, wanting her to think that he’d done it to protect some other girl’s honour, wanting her to conclude that he’d fight to protect her honour, equally.

Also, the night itself has primed him for a fight: He tried it first with the Indian, and is probably annoyed at the bouncer most of all, for stealing his small bottle of liquor (which the bouncer denied, but which I read as actually happened).

Trevor’s narrator confirms this reading:

Hungry for mercy, she too eagerly wove into his clumsy effort at distraction an identity he had not supplied, allowing it to be the truth, until time wore the deception out.

NEW SITUATION

The wisdom comes from Aisling’s father, a storybook owl character:

Aisling’s father did not repeat his castigation of her for making a friendship he had never liked: what had happened was too terrible for petty blame. Beneath an intolerant surface, he could draw on gentleness. “We have to live with this,” he said, as if accepting that the violence of the incident reached out for him, too, that guilt was indiscriminately scattered.

What do you think of this ending? In the hands of a different writer, it may feel ridiculously melodramatic:

A lesser, more careful writer, a writer more constrained by fashionable ideas of subtlety, might have ended the story zooming tastefully out from Aisling, perhaps in a quiet moment immediately after her confession. But Trevor follows doggedly through, not just to Aisling’s father’s reaction, nor to her boyfriend’s letter from prison, but to her adulthood, to a shockingly risky scene in which she visits the grave of her boyfriend’s victim — how many writers, these days, are brave enough to show their characters begging for forgiveness at gravesides? — and admits for the first time that watching the crime all those years previously, “there was pleasure. If only for a moment, but still there had been.” The final line of the story preserves this courage, refusing to shy away from the not-so-happily-ever-after to which the story has being building up: we are told that Aisling often thinks of leaving Dublin but stays, “a different person too, belonging where the thing had happened.”

Fiction Writers’ Review

We find ourselves rooting for Aisling, hoping for her freedom but she stays entrapped. This is a quietly tragic ending.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Because William Trevor is so adept at moving the reader through time, we are given all the information we need to extrapolate how this event in Aisling’s life will affect her forever.

In contrast, Manning will be out of prison in eleven years’ time, and still relatively young. There’s nothing in his character study to suggest he’ll let this incident affect him beyond that (though it surely will, a little?). In contrast, Aisling will be serving a life sentence, never externally punished, and therefore meting out her own version of justice in the form of penance. We know this because of her character set up: We can deduce some of it from her Catholicism. We are told she attends a Catholic school. So, as mentioned in the New Yorker reading, she probably takes notions of sin and guilt seriously.

DISCUSSION POINTS

In this story, two young (white) men are given light sentences:

Acquitted of murder, the two who had been apprehended were sent to jail for eleven years, their previous good conduct taken into account, together with the consideration, undenied by the court, that there was an accidental element in what had befallen them: neither had known of their victim’s frail, imperfect heart.

There exists a principle in the law called ‘eggshell skull’. Australian lawyer and sexual assault survivor Bri Lee goes into the principle in detail in her book which she titled ‘Eggshell Skull’. The marketing copy of Eggshell Skull offers a concise overview of the principle:

EGGSHELL SKULL: A well-established legal doctrine that a defendant must ‘take their victim as they find them’. If a single punch kills someone because of their thin skull, that victim’s weakness cannot mitigate the seriousness of the crime.

But what if it also works the other way? What if a defendant on trial for sexual crimes has to accept his ‘victim’ as she comes: a strong, determined accuser who knows the legal system, who will not back down until justice is done?

Should the judge and jury have taken the vicim’s ‘frail, imperfect heart’ into account? Would the judge have extended the same graciousness to young Black men? Would the judge have extended the same graciousness to a young woman who had been severaly psychologically impacted by a ‘relatively minor’ incident?

There are well-publicised crimes we can look to for answers.

In the New Yorker commentary, it is said that William Trevor is equally kind to all of his characters and that the boys who killed Dalgety aren’t fully capable for the crime because of the unknown factor of the weak heart. Do you agree that Trevor is diminishing blame for these boys by including the bit about the weak heart?

RESONANCE

For me, this story brought up a particular memory. In the early 2000s I drove separately to a garage so a workmate could get his car serviced. After that he joined me in my car. We then drove to a local high school where we both taught. While he popped into the garage, I waited outside in my own car.

At this time of day, our small town was pretty quiet. I parked on the side of the road with a set of traffic lights about 30-50 metres before me.

I remember seeing a teenage boy, who attended the brother school of our high school, riding a bike through the traffic lights. Rather than wearing a helmet, he wore it dangling from the handlebars. That’s what stood out to me about him. If he’d been one of our students, I’d have had a word about how to wear a cycle helmet.

For some reason, I noticed this, but then I looked down.

I didn’t carry a mobile phone at this point in my life, so I can’t have been absorbed in that, as I probably would be these days. I don’t know what made me look down. But I’m glad I did. I probably avoided some kind of onlookers’ trauma, because next thing I remember, an ambulance had turned up.

After I arrived at work, we all learned a student from the brother school had ran a red light on his bicycle and was killed instantly by a car who had right of way.

I’d been seconds away from seeing it. More troublingly, I’d been minutes away from killing him myself. I had only seen the aftermath, and even then, there was little to see. Just an ambulance. A single car with a single occupant. A single victim, lifted from the road. I didn’t even see that part: The ambulance blocked my view.

What struck me was the quietness. There was no screaming, no crying, nothing. In my memory, I don’t even remember an ambulance siren. Our hospital was very nearby. The centre of town was mostly deserted. The ambulance driver may not have needed to turn it on.

The quietness of William Trevor’s story is striking because, in genre fiction, death doesn’t feel like death unless telegraphed by noise. In action films, a screaming female voice is a standard foley effect, alongside banging and crashing, and superhero thuds. Even in written stories, authors often describe the sounds around violent death, perhaps guided by ‘use-all-five-senses-otherwise-it-didn’t-happen’ advice.

But death itself is silent. It can also be shockingly quick, juxtaposed against a lifelong aftermath for the left-behind.

Around this time, four boys from the same brother school were killed in a car accident late one night. A number of our students were peripherally involved. The school principal at our girls’ school took time in assembly to remind our students that they have a big influence on the boys and what boys do to show off. The girls sniggered uncomfortably. But their sniggers showed they were listening.

Perhaps you’ve also borne witness to sudden death. The quietude and the aftermath of sudden death, and the toxic bravado of teenage boys, are what William Trevor gets so right about this particular story.