All over the country people were being dislocated, heading off to places they didn’t belong, hoping to somehow find themselves another home.”–Steve Yarbrough’s The Realm of Last Chances
Steve Yarbrough’s The Realm of Last Chances, a spare, brilliant novel about being set adrift in midlife, unflinchingly examines the lives of Kristin Stevens and her husband Cal, both fifty when Kristin is laid off from her job as vice president of academic personnel at a university in California. Moving to Massachusetts, where Kristin finds a job at a third-rate college, is traumatic: even the change of seasons is disturbing. Neither Kristin (named after Kristin Lavransdatter, her parents’ favorite book) nor Cal (a lifelong Californian) are sure they will survive the move.
Yarbrough writes of Cal, who works construction and is a musician:
He was the man you engaged if you needed to have something small and delicate done and could pay for fine work. You had to accept certain things about him, though. He’d come and go on his own terms, and he would bring a small Bose along and listen throughout the day….The fact that he was working for you didn’t necessarily mean he’d return every phone call.
Cal has a violent past. He has secrets. In fact, Kristin didn’t know when they got married that he’d legally changed his name from Stegall to Stevens. His father, a developer of cheap housing estates, did time in prison for bribery, mail fraud, and witness tampering. On the other hand, Cal, more or less in the same line of work, is utterly ethical and chooses only the best materials for his carpentry and construction.
Every character is believable, lonely, and depressed.
Their neighbor, Matt, is displaced. He used to be the fiction buyer at the Harvard Emporium. He dreamed of buying a bookstore in Andover, a gorgeous, wealthy town where he and Kristin (and her coworkers) shop at Whole Foods before returning to their duller suburb. Matt now works at a friend’s deli.
He lost his job at Harvard Emporium after he volunteered to work the cash registers for an hour a day. He explains to Kristin,
The staff loved it. You’ve got a very leftist workforce there, and for me to do something as lowly as ringing up sales…well, that created a kind of egalitarian atmosphere.”
But he used that time to embezzle $35,000. He bought cocaine.
He and Kristin begin to have an affair, but at one point Matt thinks,
He’d let his own nose ruin his own life, and now it looked like his prick would ruin somebody else’s.
Kirstin, who is very snobbish about her new job at first, is unhappy that she has ended up at North Shore State. After earning her Ph.D., she was an English professor, though not a very good teacher, she says, and then went into a job in administration. In California, she had enjoyed her work. But North Shore State College, originally a teachers’ college which expanded the curriculum after World War II, has much lower standards, Kristin thinks.
In a purely academic sense–and almost every other sense as well–NSSC was undistinguished, its deficiencies rendered all the more glaring by its close proximity to Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Brandeis, even UMass Lowell. It was just a third-rate state school, where the students often worked full-time and took seven or eight years to graduate, but this was where she’d ended up.
Then a plagiarism case turns up. The head of the history department has discovered that two assistant professors have published articles they’d plagiarized, and that one had plagiarized a book. Kristin must document the evidence before she informs the president and the provost. The two are well-liked and under review for tenure, and Kristin is afraid she might lose her job. But Kristin, like Kristin Lavransdatter, does the right thing. She takes risks.
Throughout the entire novel, the characters are under extreme stress and must contemplate morality and justice. Kristin has never had an affair before, and the plagiarism case is convoluted. Cal, who is lonely and violent, finds out about the affair, as he must. And Matt realizes that he must get his life under control. Does he want to break up a marriage?
The writing in this book is breathtaking. There is no showing off, no overwriting. Every sentence is deftly balanced and pitch-perfect. I have seldom read such a perfect novel.
I highly recommend it. Perhaps a classic? Time will tell.