The Old Boys by William Trevor #williamtrevor2023

“Come now, how shall we prove we are not dead?”

I am kicking off my Year With William Trevor with his breakthrough novel from 1964, The Old Boys. Unusually for such a quintessentially Irish writer, his first critical success is based in London and the old boys of the title are very old boys indeed.

Trevor’s cast are members of the committee of an alumni association and as the novel opens, the elderly men are gathering to vote in a new President. This small group of men –Turtle, Nox, Swabey-Boyns, Jaraby, General Sanctuary, Ponders, Sole and Cridley – are bound together by a childhood experience that has shaped their entire lives. As they try to decide who will take control of the association, ancient grudges, bitter memories and festering resentments will all play their part in the outcome.

Jaraby wants the job, but Nox, who was once Jaraby’ s ‘fag’ remembers vicious humiliations at his hands and is determined to stop his appointment. Having heard rumours of visits to a brothel, Nox hires a private detective, the aptly named Swingler, to follow Jaraby and try to dig up some dirt.

Jaraby is also having problems at home, where his wife of 50 years has decided to start to speak her mind. Mrs Jaraby is fed up of her husband ruling the roost, and even more fed up of his cat Monmouth, and she is determined that their feckless, jobless son Basil be allowed to move back home, even though he is fifty years of age with a vast budgerigar collection. Jaraby in turn is convinced that his wife has gone mad, and tries to convince various doctors to allow him to drug her food so that she will stop talking back to him.

Mr Sole and Mr Cridley live in the Rimini Hotel, a dubious boarding house for the elderly, and act like an old married couple, cutting coupons and getting free estimates for building work even though all their needs are catered for. Swabey-Boyns spends most of his time correcting those who do not address him by his full double-barrelled name, while Sir George Ponders appears to be the only sensible member of the group.

The plot is secondary to Trevor’s deft character studies and a series of set pieces, which range from the funny to the bizarre. The book is dialogue led and the scenes between Jaraby and his wife are particularly sharp and entertaining. Most characters speak at cross-purposes and much of the humour comes from the confusion and ambiguity of their conversations, particularly when Mr Turtle finds himself unwittingly engaged to the landlady of the Rimini Hotel after just one trip to the cinema.

Trevor is incredibly adept at drawing out how much these men have been shaped by their school days and how they have lived their lives in the real world along the same rules and hierarchies as their time at their educational institution.

The School belonged to itself, adapting what it decided it required. ‘A miniature of the world,’ said H.L. Dowse to every new boy he interviewed. But once, later in his life, he said instead: ‘The world is the School gone mad.’

Pecking orders and rivalries are still foremost in these men’s minds and whether they enjoyed, or hated their time at school, they can’t seem to break away from the affect it had on their psyches. Trevor introduces a poignancy through his portrait of Mr Turtle, a lonely man who is having problems with his memory and who would love nothing more than to revert back to the days when bells rang to tell him what he needed to do next and life was one of routine and order.

As with The Children of Dynmouth, Trevor hints at a darkness lying just beneath the surface of these middle-class suburban lives in the shape of Basil, the wayward son whose love of birds is masking a darker, more dangerous predilection. Mrs Jaraby’s insistence that he return to the family home is the action that could end up thwarting his father’s plans once and for all.

Overall, The Old Boys is a darkly humorous, tightly structured and thought-provoking piece of work and a great start to my year reading the work of William Trevor.

Kim and Jacqui have also reviewed The Old Boys. Keep an eye out for Kim’s review of Cheating at Canasta by William Trevor over the weekend.

Next month why not join me as I read The Boarding House by William Trevor, published in 1965. Alternatively, Kim will be reading his 1969 novel Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel. You can check out our full schedule for the year on our launch post, or simply read any book by William Trevor and use the hashtag #williamtrevor2023

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Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

31 Comments Leave a comment

  1. A great review, Cathy. It’s such a darkly funny book but there is an undercurrent of menace beneath the surface. He’s such an astute observer of human behaviour and manages to depict all kinds of personalities in such detailed and authentic ways.


  2. Love your review of this one, Cathy, as it takes me back into the book! Trevor was such a master at blending the darkly comic and the poignantly tragic, a combination that’s very much in evidence here. I can still picture the pair at The Rimini Hotel, cutting out coupons and arranging demos of goods they have no intention of buying!


  3. Excellent review. I finished this myself today. I thought it was brilliant. The interactions between the characters, especially Jaraby and his wife, are written so well. I do intend to review this too eventually, you know me, so don’t hold your breath (lol).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I plan to read The Old Boys this weekend. Can’t wait! And I agree about the odd cover. There’s another Penguin series/edition with a black and white photo that’s so lovely. This one’s an interesting departure.


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