Steve Yarbrough’s brilliant new book, The Realm of Last Chances, a novel about dislocation, is my favorite novel of the year. (I wrote about it here.)
Yarbrough writes from multiple points of view, centering on Pete Barrington, a doctor who moves back to his hometown in Mississippi with his wife, Angela, and daughter, Toni. An affair with a patient resulted in his leaving his practice in California.
It is a traumatic move for all of them. Pete, a former high-school football star who left for California on a football scholarship, never expected to return and practice medicine in Loring. His best friend, Timothy, a depressed lawyer and part-time assistant football coach whose ex-wife and daughter live in another town, finds him a part-time job as an assistant coach. Tim and Angela also connect, partly because she and Pete have not been able to reestablish a caring relationship. And so we have a triangle here, but it is not the triangle that destroys the family.
Yarbrough’s description of Pete’s discovery of the affair is sadly realistic, in that he knows before he knows he knows. He notices that Tim has lost some weight and is dressing better and realizes he must have a woman. “There must be a damn good reason why his friend of more than thirty years hadn’t told him about something this important.”
And then he watches Angela and everything becomes clear.
That evening Angela sat at her vanity looking at her face, as she often did these days. At first she’d been startled that her appearance had not changed. Visible evidence ought to accompany a transformation of the type she’d experienced, but no such evidence existed. At least not to her eye.
His eye saw what her eye missed. Normally, she did things while she sat there, examining her skin for blemishes, squeezing a pustule if she found one, rubbing cold cream on her neck, plucking her eyebrows. But lately she just looked. Her movements around the bedroom had grown languid too, and she no longer guarded her nakedness. Right now, for instance, she wore a white silk pajama top but was naked below the waist. Last night she’d stepped straight from the shower and walked over to the dresser with water dripping from her pubic hair. If she was still ashamed of her thin legs, small breasts or the fold of fat below the transverse scar from her C-section, she no longer showed it.
The slowness and heaviness of Pete’s observations as he attempts to repress his own knowledge is the kind of thing that happens in every marriage at some time.
Oddly, it is not the triangle that catalyzes violence, but their daughter Toni’s relationship with her boyfriend, Mason. Mason’s father, Alan, the Christian manager of a Piggly Wiggly store, hates Pete, because in high school his mother, Edie, had affairs with boys who were seniors in high school; Pete was one of them. Alan tries to stop his son from seeing Toni.
Violence changes the course of the book. Although it is not a mystery, and we know who committed the crime, the police are involved and evidence slowly comes to light.
I admired this novel very much. The Realm of Last Chances is a masterpiece; The End of California is merely brilliant. Both are among the best novels I’ve read this year.
And you can read my interview with Steve Yarbrough here.