Bart Yates’ third novel, The Distance Between Us, is a melodrama surrounding Hester Parker, a five-foot four, 71 year-old concert pianist turned alcoholic college music professor in Bolton, Illinois. Hester, reeling from the suicide of her youngest son Jeremy, also a musical prodigy and a professor, is at odds with her concert violinist husband, Arthur Donovan, who has been having a 15-year affair behind her back and has abandoned Hester and their home for a life with his mistress and an impending divorce. The Donovans’ two other surviving adult children, Paul and Caitlin, are also both spectacularly gifted intellectuals and college professors in Bolton, though Caitlin, their “brightest child” has escaped her childhood musical torture to become head of the English department. Into this mix arrives 20 year-old Alex Pearl, a gay transfer student with his own set of psychological baggage, who rents Hester’s attic apartment where her son Jeremy used to live.
Yates uses the eccentricity and wit of his overeducated characters to flesh out a sequence of scenes and flashbacks detailing the cause and impact of Jeremy’s suicide on the Donovans, illuminating the overwhelming bitterness, cruelty, and self-absorption of the members of this dysfunctional family. The Donovan children, at war with their parents and amongst themselves, call each other “pisshead” and threaten to kill each other. That might seem normal enough in any family, but Yates gives them spiteful evil streaks where they taunt and humiliate each other over lisps and hunched backs and secretive affairs until one or more of the family members are physically and psychologically hurt. One scene, in which a 13-year-old Caitlin is practicing her flute in front of the entire family, devolves into a strange scenario where her brothers tell her to imagine their parents in their underwear and insult their father’s physique in his presence by telling him he has “man boobs.”
“I could win a Nobel Prize, and Mom and Dad wouldn’t even notice,” young Caitlin wails about her lack of musical ability and bringing the scenario back to herself. Hester’s consolation to her daughter arrives in the form: “Do you really think your father and I give a damn that you’re not exactly Jean-Pierre Rampal when it comes to the flute?” Caitlin’s response is affirmative. She tells her parents, “the only thing that matters to either of you is music, and if you say otherwise, you’re lying.”
Years later her brother Jeremy is battling depression by sitting on the roof of the family house. “Do you think for a moment I’d be up here on the roof, thinking about stepping off, if I weren’t a prodigy?” he tells his mother. “My gift is what makes me dissatisfied with everything else in the world.”
Again, Hester’s response is less than heartwarming. “Self-pity bores me,” she responds to her endangered son, “and every time I hear yet another ‘sensitive artist’ bellyaching about how difficult his life is, I want to cut my own ears off like Van Gogh, so as not to have to listen to it anymore. Now come inside and stop spouting nonsense.”
Hester’s eldest son, Paul, wants to toss Alex out of Jeremy’s apartment, and when Hester won’t, Paul shows up on several occasions at the house drunk and combative to force his hand, sending himself to jail and another character to the hospital. Hester confronts her husband’s mistress at a University reception with a tossed cocktail in a scene worthy of an episode of Dynasty. Hester also considers herself more a performer than a teacher, but it’s surprising nonetheless that there is little teaching or learning by anyone in this novel set in academia.
But perhaps that is also the author’s point in depicting a family of monsters. The situation here is quite extraordinary and unreal and Hester and her family only know things about themselves. In fact, Hester reaffirms exactly what her children know of her already: “Nothing in my life has ever mattered more to me than my musical ability. Not my parents, not my children, not even Arthur. It is the only thing I own that no one else can touch, nor sully, and it is mine forever.”
—— The Distance Between Us
by Bart Yates
Kensington / $24.00
Hardcover, 304 pp.