The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House, John Whittier Treat
Big Table Publishing, 2015
Reviewed by Catherine Vlahos
There are few things more romanticized by pop culture than decades past and hipster havens like Seattle (although I hear that everyone is predicting lifestyle trends that will usurp the hipster in 2016). Honestly, I’m guilty of having a strange urge to travel west to satisfy some sort of Instagram-fueled desire for woodlands and coffee and acoustic guitar music, myself. But, like all fantasies, there is a real, bleak, and often terrifying reality swept under the rug that many have the luxury of ignoring, and John Whittier Treat’s novel The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House is a complex glimpse into just that: the AIDS crisis of the 1980s that threatened to destroy gay communities all over the country.
The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House follows Jeff, a scared and lonely history professor who recently left his old boyfriend and friends in New York for a new life in Seattle. He becomes involved with Henry, a much younger man with a drug addiction and difficult past. Juxtaposed with Jeff and Henry is Nan’s life as a new divorcee, and while these characters couldn’t appear more different initially, it becomes clear that they’re all desperately clambering to fill their own emptiness with a raw sense of urgency and self-destruction.
The three are eventually drawn together when Nan offers her newly purchased, eponymous yellow house as a space for gay crisis groups to hold their meetings. Jeff and Henry’s opposite personalities and experiences orbit each other–colliding and crackling together with passion, anger, and pain under Nan’s roof–and their interactions are truly intoxicating. I will be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for character-driven writing, and Treat’s novel certainly offers the reader a menagerie of flawed and complex characters and relationships to lose oneself in.
Offset by the richly developed characters is the grim snapshot of social issues that The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House also provides. Gay rights and visibility, drug and alcohol abuse, and class and race struggles all play equally important roles alongside the lost souls of Seattle and New York. Watching Jeff and Henry navigate the confusion and uncertainty of their lives while carrying these greater burdens is a bleak and frightening journey, and as the title of Treat’s novel suggests, everyone’s trajectory in life is not necessarily upwards.
It is not a given that a journey begun at the beginning of a novel ends happily, or even sadly, for that matter–sometimes, it just ends. Like real life, closure is not always possible for every little thing that happens throughout the course of a lifetime, and The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House certainly reminds us of this fact many times. However, Treat also encourages us, in a way–at the end of the cycles we seem to be doomed to repeat, in the middle of wandering aimlessly and without purpose, we may sometimes find a miracle.