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 Trevor’s 1994 novel, “Felicia’s Journey,” 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 “see the dignity” within a disturbed man.
When a writer can accomplish that, you know he’s a gifted storyteller. I’m not a literary critic. I just know what I like. And “Felicia’s Journey” is one of those special books: compelling, crafted, and never taking the easy way out.
I came across “Felicia’s Journey” 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. It’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 Trevor’s death, from Salter and other learned fans, remind me why I like fiction.
You wouldn’t think I would need reminding. Who doesn’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 I’ve found a writer who won’t let me down. It’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 “Flower Hunters,” an exquisite short story from Gainesville’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 don’t read fiction to get away; I read it to learn and reflect and move forward.
“Surely, in the history of humanity, she is not the only one to feel like this,” Groff’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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jimrossOSB