Old sins snarl at the end of this rising Mississippi writer’s long leash
In his thoroughly American novel, The End of California, former Pen/Faulkner nominee Steven Yarbrough draws on fried chicken, football, and Baptism to tell a story rife with moral predicaments. When Dr. Peter Barrington’s affair with a patient jeopardizes his career and family life, he moves with his sophisticated wife and daughter from California back to his hometown of Loring, Miss., where an even older transgression catches up with him.
The tension is high as model family man, staunch Baptist, and Piggly Wiggly owner Alan DePoyster licks some unhealed wounds. Unbeknownst to Barrington, DePoyster’s blood still boils over a scandalous incident that happened when they were teenagers, and some 25 years later, this good man’s grudge takes a dangerous turn. Despite Yarbrough’s potent ingredients—adultery, racism, alcoholism, incest, murder—he writes with surprising subtlety about ordinary tragedies: a doctor who can’t heal his own wayward behavior, and a believer who falls hard from grace.
The first half of Yarbrough’s book, fraught with apprehension, is much stronger than the second, when the author brings too many characters to the fore, and dips too often into overly clever dialogue. Taken as a whole, though, the novel paints a complex portrait of small-town America, and, without judgment, asks hard questions about righteousness.