Can you feel sympathy for a serial killer?
Not in real life. But you can, at least a tiny bit, in literature — so long as the character is drawn by a master like William Trevor, the Irish novelist and short story writer who died last week.
In Trevorâ€™s 1994 novel, â€œFeliciaâ€™s Journey,â€ we are introduced to Mr. Hilditch, a lonely and manipulative man who, it turns out, kills people.
I will reveal no more, lest I spoil the story. But as Mark Salter pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, with Mr. Hilditch, Trevor manages to make his readers â€œsee the dignity” within a disturbed man.
When a writer can accomplish that, you know heâ€™s a gifted storyteller. Iâ€™m not a literary critic. I just know what I like. And â€œFeliciaâ€™s Journeyâ€ is one of those special books: compelling, crafted, and never taking the easy way out.
I came across â€œFeliciaâ€™s Journeyâ€ by using a method that I think would have met Trevor’s approval: random sampling.
I roam the library shelves and select books (and books on tape) on a whim. This hit-or-miss strategy has more hits than misses, believe it or not. Itâ€™s kind of like life itself: When you take a chance and embark on an experience, the bet usually pays off.
The homages published upon Trevorâ€™s death, from Salter and other learned fans, remind me why I like fiction.
You wouldnâ€™t think I would need reminding. Who doesnâ€™t like a good novel or short story? But most of my reading, and all of my writing, is nonfiction. How easy it is to forget the joy of getting immersed in a good tale. When I stop thinking about craftsmanship and concentrate only on the plot and characters, I know Iâ€™ve found a writer who wonâ€™t let me down. Itâ€™s a wonderful feeling.
Coincidentally, I experienced another fiction-related reminder last week, completely unrelated to Trevor. I was reminded that fiction can be an escape. By that I mean a productive departure from the events of the day, not just a mindless journey into distraction.
The reminder came when I read the Nov. 21 edition of the New Yorker. It includes 16 short essays from writers responding to the presidential election. With a few exceptions, the dispatches are seething takes on Donald Trump and the people who voted for him. Dispiriting work, to say the least.
Deeper in that edition, thank goodness, is â€œFlower Hunters,â€ an exquisite short story from Gainesvilleâ€™s Lauren Groff. The story touches on Florida history, the pain of losing a friendship, the worries (symbolized by that classic Florida menace, a sinkhole) that adults must bear.
This escape into fiction inspired a different kind of concern in me. But that is fine. I donâ€™t read fiction to get away; I read it to learn and reflect and move forward.
â€œSurely, in the history of humanity, she is not the only one to feel like this,â€ Groffâ€™s narrator thinks to herself.
No, she is not. And that reminds us of another, oft-cited benefit of fiction: It can make us feel a little less alone.
The events of the day can only be put off for so long before they demand our attention. How nice to have artists whose work gives us a place to pause: fictional worlds where we can learn, recharge, and then get on with whatever it is that faces us on the other side.
Jim Ross can be reached at 671-6412 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jimrossOSB