Steve Yarbrough is a person for whom place is the thing. A Southern writer, Mississippi-born, he populates and plots his novels only after setting is secured—and the setting has always been the South. “I need the history of the place, I need the smells, the sounds, the feel of the air, all of that,” says Yarbrough, who stuck with Southern locations in spite of two decades’ residence in the Golden State. “Even after all those years, for whatever reason, California seems an alien place to me. I just never felt deeply connected to it.” But when he moved to Massachusetts in 2009, that sense of disenfranchisement lifted. “New England—I don’t know—it’s just been magic to me,” he says.
“A breeze off the ocean was sweeping up the hill through Cedar Park, and as [Cal] walked along with Suzy they were showered by falling leaves. The day was bright, with a little bite in the air. Until now he’d never really known what autumn meant,” Yarbrough writes.
Massachusetts is the setting of The Realm of Last Chances, a southern novel with a northern setting. The known opponents may have more in common than you’d think. “Everybody thinks New England is different from the south, but New Englanders have a connection to where they’re living that Southerners have, too,” says Yarbrough. Those everybody-knows-everything communities where generations live and die on the same street is as likely to exist in Massachusetts as in Mississippi—a deep sense of pride in a shared, storied history.
But history can haunt. At the story’s center are three characters living with blemished pasts: Kristin, 50, a comp lit professor turned administrator, once divorced, downsized from a mid-tier California university, downgraded to North Shore State College in Massachusetts. Husband Cal, 50, a former contractor, a stoic craftsman and musician living under an assumed surname, makes the cross-country move with his wife. Thirty-something Matt, a smart would-be writer, former cokehead embezzler and sandwich shop employee, lives on their Victorian- and colonial-choked block in blue-collar Montvale. Each is starting over. “I think some people do fight it when they realize that the glorious life that they envisioned for themselves when they were 14 is mostly gone, or they never had it, or they’re not going to have it,” Yarbrough says. “I think it brings out the best in some people and I think it brings out the worst in others.”
Inevitably, readers will come to know the best and worst of Kristin, Matt and Cal through their personal and professional scandals, that grist for the Montvale gossip mill (an affair, an assault). A sense of inevitability pervades. Cal had “plenty of stuff at home to make a sandwich with, and just getting out of the house had been the point,” Yarbrough writes. “He would’ve walked back up the hill and fixed himself something to eat. And then what was about to happen wouldn’t have, though he later guessed that maybe something worse could have.”
The potential for violence underlies the narrative but often fails to boil over. Kristin appeared “incapable, lately, of even feigned outrage. People had flaws. They ignored the law, broke hearts and violated all norms of decency and ethics, engaging in academic misconduct, financial malfeasance, political chicanery, sexual transgression,” he writes. “Spending a good part of your life trying to stamp that out would exhaust anybody, especially if you were guilty yourself, and in some form or fashion who wasn’t?”
Coolheadedness may come with age, experience, or both, but its most important aspect may be acceptance. Cal’s and Matt’s thinking similarly evolve by narrative’s end, bringing some semblance of peace. “I think of it as a fairly hopeful book because the characters come to terms with where they are in life. I like to think that at the end of it, even with a pretty high degree of sadness for some of them, they’re ready to take the next step,” says Yarbrough. The story may be tied to place, but the sentiment isn’t.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.