The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House
by John Whittier Treat
Big Table Publishing
Reviewed by Chael Needle
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]ome novels you can just settle into, and The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House, a roman à clef by John Whittier Treat set in the early eighties, is one of them. It’s a testament to Treat’s careful, lyrical prose that you want to spend time with and come to care for the characters, who are all in some ways unsettled.
There’s Jeff, fleeing from New York to Seattle, the main setting of the novel, anxiously self-aware that it’s a soldier’s desertion. He has left behind a friend dying of AIDS and a boyfriend whom he fears might be next. Hell, he might be next. He tries to quell his fears with alcohol and, sometimes, no-strings fun. But, as someone reminds him, he has brought his nightmares with him.
There’s Henry, young and troubled though sincere about moving on to something better than being a drug dealer-in-training. He works part-time at Starbucks (at a time when he has to explain the word “barista” to someone). He keeps saying he is quitting junk, but he keeps shooting up. It doesn’t help that Jeff, with whom he starts a relationship, is a dead ringer for his first dealer/lover, a Fagan figure with the ironically innocuous name of Ryan.
There’s Nan, freshly divorced and moved into the big empty house of the novel’s title. She feels disconnected from her grown son and, seeking purpose in her lonely life, opens her house to displaced gay AA and NA groups, as well as a “worried well” group, where gay men meet to talk through their fears of AIDS. She’s kind, but it never quite strikes her how easy it is to fill the house with people in crisis. In fact, it’s a bit overrun.
Soon, at the bequest of the recovery-group organizer Vinnie, who thinks she needs someone to manage the meetings, she enlists the help of Jeff and Henry. The two men move in, testing their relationship in a space full of demons, some of them their own.
All of the characters are emotionally numbed in some way, to some extent entombed while alive, like that family in the House of Usher with the strange maladies. Though the AIDS pandemic will become famous for producing rage and protest, we are not in that part of the woods yet. No, we are still in the frozen-deer-in-the-headlights stretch—the novel captures a moment in time before the true screaming starts. And what do we find? Not the monstrous bogeymen or deserving victims of God’s wrath, those Gothic fictions that mainstream society had rendered at a fever pitch to dismiss its responsibility to humanity, namely, to love a whole generation of gay men, or whomever they could label as “undeserving.” No, the terror and doom that underpin the shadowy manors of Gothic novels and fueled AIDS hysteria have no place here. In Yellow House, we find everyday people limned in plain light, without judgment or alarm. We meet human beings with crappy childhoods, failed relationships, yearnings to love, and struggles with addiction, who, in any other universe, would be given the opportunity to work through what pains them.
The characters are all unpacking their lives, literally and figuratively, but do so with the hesitation of sojourners who are still trying to decide how long they are going to stay. To this time and space, this yellow caution light, life has brought them, but will they slow down before the intersection or try to beat the red? The novel reminds one of Maupin’s Tales of the City, where disconnected people seek out and nurture new families. But there is far less optimism in the Yellow House than at 28 Barbary Lane. This is not mid-seventies San Francisco, when people still believed in the promise of the Summer of Love and Mary Ann Singleton could open her eyes to the possibilities of the new. This is early-eighties Seattle, when the recovery movement is in full swing and gay men, if not dying in hospital beds, are frightened that they too would soon be dead. Through the lens of Yellow House’s Jeff, we see the knotty questions we are faced with. How do you attend to life if you are almost a ghost, if the threat of death keeps barking inside of you? Is surviving more than not dying? What if you are ready to make a positive change, but that second chance is taken from you?
These questions resonate today, at a time when HIV/AIDS continues to hit hard, especially among young gay and bi men, and trans women, and marginalized communities continue to be shaped by mental health issues, addiction, and structural barriers to empowered health. But, as the novel hints at, we are left with history to guide us.
Jeff is a history scholar by trade, but the acuity with which he delves into the rise of the Klan in the postbellum South, his doctoral dissertation topic, means little as he tries to navigate his newfound Seattle neighborhoods. But that’s not Jeff’s fault, particularly. You cannot read the historical moment while you’re living in it. It’s like a scene in the novel when Jeff and Henry drive to Mount Saint Helen’s, but the visitor’s center is closed and its environs are shrouded in fog. They don’t even know if they are on the volcano. They are enmeshed in a landscape of emotion and experience, too much a part of it to see where exactly they are or where they might go.
But Treat, as historian, can and does offer a cogent, sensitive reading of the moment. In doing so, he does not worry about stocking the novel with pop-culture cultural references; Yellow House is not a nostalgia tour where the reader can relive the ephemera of the ’80s. It’s not the obvious Treat is desperately seeking, but the unsaid or the hardly-ever-said—that, for one, we must recover our pasts, individual and communal, if we want the chance to heal.
Early in the novel, after he inters a time capsule, Jeff makes a note to remind himself: “(Tell someone where you buried your past.)” We, as readers, are those someones. Will we excavate it? Will we once again find our community’s center? Will we finally come alive, together?
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.