When Yellow Leaves
Spuyten Duyvil, 2016
Speculative fiction is an odd duck. Current tastes tend to run towards Young Adult libertarian-twinged dystopia (Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner series), and it’s difficult to find novels that forge their own path. Fortunately, the debut novel from James Reiss gives readers a truly unique world that could, arguably, stand next to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (certainly less bleak but just as earnest and innovative in its telling).
Reiss, a life-long poet, pulls his novel’s title from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, one of the more fatalistic from the bard:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
I doubt just how much of a key into the novel this allusion can be, but it certainly provides a ground. The passage of time and memory as well as rebirth hums in the background of Reiss’s story set in a post-apocalyptic United States that has some how reverted back, devolved if you will, to a kind of retro-Depression era dust bowl dictatorship ruled by a figurehead that feels like a fascist Woody Guthrie (the Big Brother-like, Guv’na Brush). All of this is capture by one man, Boyd, and his relic Leica camera as he faces a profound family crises and the land’s natural revolt.
With a poet’s eye, Reiss has plotted and framed his story well, told through Boyd over several days. As a struggling photographer, Boyd is the literal and figurative lens through which we see how anti-intellectualism and militarism can entwine to create this state, political and psychological. Everything in When Yellow Leaves is on the verge of collapse–Boyd, the State, and even the natural world–and it is less a question of why or how than of when. The novel works better when the reader resists the urge to force some allegorical or present day correlation (an incredibly difficult mindset to get into when reading speculative fiction). It’s strength comes in reading the story as a snapshot of a moment in time about memory and forgetting and how one reacts in extremes. Reiss uses the speculative fiction genre to make his extremes something far from us yet enticing. Seeing how Boyd’s family breaks down (estrangement both intimate and political from his wife and the desperate attempt to keep his son safe but also somehow out of the mire that is Guv’na Brush) amid the cataclysm of sandstorms and earthquakes as the oppressive but loved regime falters makes for a compelling story.
Weaknesses in the novel come in the form of repetitiveness (the asinine ritualized greeting that involves a call-and-response catchphrase and high-fives was humorous once or twice but quickly becomes distracting and irksome) and in a kind of meandering in the storytelling that feels too lackadaisical. Both are ‘rookie mistakes,’ if you will, and are minor blemishes. When Yellow Leaves is at once a traditional familial novel and a dystopian adventure tale, readers of either will find the story fresh and engaging.
James Reiss grew up in New York City and northern New Jersey. For many years he was Professor of English at Miami University in Ohio, as well as Founding Editor of Miami University Press. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including The Breathers, Riff on Six: New and Selected Poems, and The Novel, as well as the editor of Self-Interviews: James Dickey. His work has appeared in such places as The Atlantic, Esquire, The Hudson Review, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Poetry, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Slate. His surname rhymes with “peace.” He lives near Chicago. This is his first novel.
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