Walt Steadman, the protagonist of Douglas Trevor’s first novel, Girls I Know, is a character many in Ann Arbor will recognize: an “all but dissertation” PhD candidate at Harvard who has given up on ever finishing. He has a couple of jobs that take up a few hours of his day and allow him to live with his books on the very edge of poverty. He has abandoned all ambition, although he has a nagging sense of guilt about the expectations of his Vermont family, expectations he will clearly never meet. He loves Boston and appears to move easily through the city and its various social classes, even though he initially projects a sensibility that removes him from just about everyone.
That sense of being distant from his surroundings is highlighted by the character, Ginger, who gives Trevor his title. In the novel, “Girls I Know” is the title of a wealthy young undergraduate’s prospective dissertation. Ginger’s idea is to interview women throughout the city to try to understand how they understand the presence of evil in their lives. She reads Thomas Aquinas and hopes to write a twenty-first century theodicy. Needless to say, from the beginning Trevor’s readers know that evil will find her.
Ginger challenges Walt’s diffidence, as does his attachment to the Early Bird Cafe, where he breakfasts every morning. Though it’s across town, he loves the place and the people who work there. “Walt had trudged through blizzards and rainstorms and combinations of the two for years, just to have breakfast at the Early Bird,” Trevor tells us. And the writer also lets us know, on page three, that there will be a multiple murder there.
Walt survives the shooting, with an attendant sense of guilt, of course, and chooses to help tutor the daughter of the owners of the restaurant, an eleven-year-old girl who retreats into silence after the horror of the killings. Crossing seemingly insurmountable barriers of class, Walt discovers that he can actually be an effective teacher to young Mercedes–once he learns not to condescend about the knowledge he has acquired.
Douglas Trevor’s gift is that he makes us appreciate all of the characters in Girls I Know. The privileged Ginger, who actually knows she is “slumming” when she does her research; the feckless Walt, whom you sometimes just want to slap to force him off his duff–Trevor genuinely appreciates them both. And he can be absolutely convincing when he discovers, along with Walt, that sometimes teaching can indeed be a salvation, for the student and also for the teacher. Douglas Trevor appears at Nicola’s on September 10.