Stay Gone Days
(IG Publishing, 2022)
Steve Yarbrough’s eighth novel, Stay Gone Days, follows the lives of two girls, the Cole sisters, Ella and Caroline, who grow up in Loring, Mississippi. After high school, they go their separate ways, and, for the most part, stay gone. Ella, the older of the two, goes to Berklee music school, drops out, and winds up staying in the Boston area, working menial jobs until she marries a successful record producer. Caroline heads west to California and eventually to Eastern Europe, settling in Poland. Yarbrough, from Mississippi himself, is also the author of three story collections and one book of nonfiction. He now lives near Boston and teaches writing at Emerson College. Yarbrough tells me that Richard Yates was a “huge influence” on him. “So were William Trevor, James Salter, Elizabeth Spencer,” he says, “and, though he might not seem to belong in their company, Milan Kundera. Also, Alice Munro.” Of the folks who are alive and still writing, Yarbrough admires Colm Tóibín, Tessa Hadley, Peter Stamm, Aminatta Forna, and Celeste Mohammed. “Mohammed is my most exciting recent discovery,” he says.
I find Yarbrough a wonderfully classic storyteller in the manner of other writers, like Richard Bausch, Rick Bass, and T. C. Boyle. Still, Yarbrough’s story is filled with postmodernist touches—flash-forwards and an element akin to Charles Baxter’s metafictional technique in The Soul Thief, which is more than a story within a story: it is the story.
Yarbrough’s novel, which covers about forty years, begins in the mid-1970s in Mississippi. Each of the Cole sisters attends private school, but their parents couldn’t really afford the tuition and were often broke. Ella “makes straight A’s, has pale skin and hair so blonde it’s nearly white, and she’s got the placid demeanor of a Christmas tree angel.” As for Caroline:
There’s a running debate among a contingent of high school guys about which of the Cole girls is hottest. Most would vote for Caroline. It’s the dirty language, the wild red hair, the piercing green eyes, the bad grades she doesn’t give a damn about, the rumor about what happened one night behind the old abandoned brick yard and was said to involve the entire first team offensive line and the backup tight end.
Ella has a talent for singing, Caroline for lying.
Shortly after a family catastrophe, the Cole sisters leave town. Ella heads northeast and Caroline west. Ella goes to Berklee, but eventually drops out. She works as a waitress in a restaurant where she serves Richard Yates, two or three times a week. “For a while he half-heartedly hit on her, paying her raspy compliments, asking her to say things like y’all come back now so he could get the dialogue right if he ever wrote a classic Southern charmer into one of his books.” He becomes enough of a friend that he signs his name, Dick Yates, to his story collection Liars in Love.
In California, Caroline, now Carin, continually finds herself in cycles of lies, love, and trouble. When an old hoodlum boyfriend finds her, she leaves her current boyfriend and California. She heads back east toward home and works menial jobs as Caro Cole. Eventually, Caro travels to Europe where, with a forged college transcript, she settles in Poland and teaches English. She’s now Karo Kohl. “The initial ‘c’ in Polish is pronounced like an ‘s,’ and an ‘e’ at the end of a word is always pronounced ‘uh,’ and she didn’t want to be known as ‘Saro Soluh.’”
Throughout the novel, Yarbrough uses lots of flash-forwards, which are truly flashes, not chapters or even paragraphs, but sometimes just a sentence. The flashes, so numerous that it’s sometimes a bit difficult to remember all of them, often foreshadow: “Nearly forty years from now, she [Ella] will finally gaze upon the remains of the Paces’ farmhouse.” Occasionally, they tie up loose ends concerning minor characters: “Her former landlady, who’d be dead in six months from breast cancer and was probably already concealing her illness.” Sometimes the flash-forwards use a minor character and an object, like Yates and his signed book, to connect two characters, as is the case when the sisters finally meet:
to Ella with admiration
“Years later, when she read his [Yates’s] obituary in the Globe, she was stunned to learn that at his death he was only sixty-six.” That sets up a later scene when one sister finds the autographed book in the other’s house.
One of the sisters eventually becomes a writer. First, she writes short stories that her agent places in commercial and literary magazines. Later, she finishes a novel called Stay Gone Days, which, à la Baxter, is the novel whose review you are reading.
For Yarbrough and his metafictional author, “writing close to the bone” is all they know how to do. Common among serious writers, it’s a maxim whose literary ancestry traces back to a poem called “The Old Marlborough Road,” by Henry David Thoreau. Though Thoreau’s “close to the bone” specifically meant living alone and poor, it also meant living in a way that was true and honest, especially if hardships were involved.
In a recent interview, Yarbrough explains what the maxim means to him:
[It] means the willingness to draw from the life I see around me, in all its chaotic, generally less than idyllic manifestations. … I continue to be astounded by some people’s desire to have trigger warnings on novels. One of the reasons I read fiction is to be triggered, to be forced to experience someone else’s reality, no matter how painful it may be. That makes me a more caring person.
Yarbrough’s fictional author works with a line editor any novelist would love—one who edits in green, not red; corrects unnecessary repetition so that it doesn’t diminish intentional anaphora; and engages in “spirited debates over the serial comma.” Any writer would love her, even if she does utter the overused adjective “epic” when she describes your novel.
Although Richard Yates appears a minor character in this novel, his work helped inspire the story. Yates’s novel, The Easter Parade (1976), follows sisters Sarah and Emily Grimes over four decades as they grow into two very different women much like Ella and Caroline. That novel begins, “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life.” Although the Cole sisters lived rough and broken lives, they found, however fleeting, some happiness in this engaging treasure of a book.