There are a number of ways to track dysfunction in a character’s life. The character can unravel gradually before the readers’ eyes, and then reassemble, as Claire Messud’s angry spinster does in “The Woman Upstairs.” Or the writer can describe a character’s derailing with impartiality and let you into that character’s mind with the radiance of select details, as Denis Johnson did with his addled protagonist in “Jesus’ Son.”
In “The Realm of Last Chances,” Steve Yarbrough takes a calm, somewhat relaxed attitude toward his characters’ decay, as if he were opening a door to each person’s psyche and telling us to look as long as we want and leave the keys when we’re done. Sometimes this works beautifully, but at times it leads to a slackness between moments of narrative heat.
The novel takes place in academia, and on the East Coast, both departures for Yarbrough, whose books are often rooted in the South. He shoulders the changed environs with grace and believability, even if every now and then, extra moving parts lessen the novel’s impact.
Though Kristen and Cal seem at first like the sort of couple whose opposite traits balance each other out, it eventually seems more likely that their differences keep each other occupied, in the sort of listless manner that could very easily either disintegrate or blossom, without much warning either way. Kristen has been laid off from a high-ranking administrative position at a California university, and she has relocated to the suburbs of Boston with her hapless husband. While Kristen is at work, Cal spends most of his time repairing the house — or growing more acquainted with his musical instruments, or with his whiskey, or both.
As we get to know this couple, we realize that neither person is necessarily more grounded than the other. They’re both carrying baggage: Kristen’s first marriage didn’t last long, because of her spouse’s infidelity; Cal seems unable to commit to a relationship because of an abiding narcissism, along with childhood wounds that have bred suspicion and a tendency toward loner-hood.
The longer Kristen and Cal stay in the suburbs, the more trouble they get in, and the more the novel becomes a cutaway diagram of each character’s psychological damage. Kristen quickly meets her neighbor Matt, a semi-intellectual who is quite thoroughly damaged; he lost a bookstore job after stealing thousands of dollars from the cash register, and his first marriage was destroyed by his drug addiction. By the time we meet him, he’s single, working at an unfulfilling deli job, but he has not let his sensitivity or intellect go to seed, though they threaten to vanish at any moment. Naturally, he and Kristen have an affair. Does Cal find out? Of course, but he keeps it to himself. The explosions that occur here all occurred in the past; the present exists in an emotional still chamber.
Yarbrough tracks emotional drift, calving, and regeneration lovingly, and the novel has many moments of psychological poetry. However, he dampens these effects by adding unnecessary extras that stall the book more than anything else: A plot line about plagiarism, for example, could be said to belong in a book about dishonesty, but its progress seems only weakly related to the rest of the novel.
On a broader scale, though, the passions and disappointments of these characters hit home. Why? Because Yarbrough allows the opening and closing of chasms between these individuals the proper space and time to develop, thus allowing them the chance to achieve maximum resonance.
By the end, we feel as if we, like Yarbrough’s soulful figures, have wandered into the titular, despairing realm of last chances, in which we push ourselves away aggressively from loss, and then return, somewhat wiser. For isn’t this the way all of us move through our lives, when all is said and done, at one time or another?