The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House
Two characters move the narrative of The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House forward: Nan and Jeff. Nan is a straight, recent middle-aged divorcee looking for purpose; Jeff is a gay, 30-something professor looking for purpose. Different genders, sexual orientations, and life stages, but similar dilemmas—how do you live in a world of uncertainties and purposelessness? Treat’s subject matter is heavy, but his story is mundane; there is no moral, no point, no ah-ha moment. There is only the bleakness of life.
Nan has sold her family home and fallen in love with a larger house in the Queen Anne section of Seattle. A bit rundown and far too large for just one woman, she decides to offer the Yellow House as a meeting place for the gay men’s AA group. Jeff, recently departed from NY at the onset of the AIDS epidemic, arrives in Seattle, ready for a new love and new life—which leads him to Henry, a troubled 20-year-old with a dark past. Through Henry, Nan, and Jeff cross paths—much happens in between.
The book is well-written with a tight narrative. There are elements of magical realism and glimmers of light here, but there is also an inescapable darkness that makes one wonder how anyone made it out of the 20th Century alive.
The AIDS epidemic, once loud, ugly, and violent, has become quiet as the battle against it has become more successful and the frontlines have receded to the margins. So it is surprising, and perhaps uncomfortable, for this Yellow House to rise as a reminder of a now mostly bygone era. Yet there is a truth here that is recognizable to many—especially urban dwellers. This novel taps into the underlying fear associated with living. While this book fits comfortably within AIDS literature, the disease takes backseat to the more immediate questions: how do you define your purpose, and how do you go on after tragedy?
The isolation and anonymity of the overpopulated urban jungle becomes denser as time goes on—the small enclaves within more competitive and exclusive—personal purpose becoming obscured by peer pressures and simple survival. Here, what becomes known as “arf,” could just as easily be cancer or Alzheimer’s or PTSD or any number of other ailments that are both physically and mentally debilitating to the individual and community. Treat takes the most feared disease of the modern age to talk about fear itself and the lengths we will go to hide, mask, and run from it.
In this, The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House is evocative and reflective. Yet there is little the reader is left with but the blanket of fear under which all the primary characters huddle. In that, Treat leaves this reader wanting more—not for the sake of a happy ending, but for the sake of balance. There are always survivors, but, here, there is only devastation and loss. These characters, masterfully made flesh and blood, never have the benefit of a laugh, a real connection or any joy. The rise is so short and the fall so permanent.
John Whittier Treat
Big Table Publishing Company