Friday, January 29, 2016

Review: "Stay Up With Me" by Tom Barbash

I love a good, classic short story collection: ones without needless experimentation and or overcompensation, ones that tell classic stories of human need and the little moments that make life profound. The collection Stay Up with Me by writer Tom Barbash is just one of those collections. Through thirteen stories, ranging in locales like the Upper West Side of New York to a ski resort, we witness people on the edge of something, whether that be interpersonal, professional or emotional, and we watch as they struggle to make sense of things, cut off, by ego or a finite grasp of their limitations, from the words and actions that might make things right, or at least verbalize their pain and desperation. I’m struggling to make an appropriate comparison, but the best one I can come up with, at least honestly, are the two collections by another Tom, that being Perrotta. Much like Bad Haircut and Nine Inches, the people who populate Barbash’s world are adults fighting with themselves over their failed ambition and parenthood that seems less like a gift and more like a prison sentence, and people on the cusp of adulthood, no matter their age, who find out, quite harshly that about the more brutal aspects of the world. It is hard to pick a few out of this collection, since none of them are weak, and each one conveys its themes and ideas in brilliant and effective ways. A few standouts include the first story, “The Break” where a mom who supplants her loneliness onto her son’s love life involving a waitress. It’s quietly creepy and ultimately sad for both son and daughter. The second story, “Balloon Night” sees a man struggle to put together a party during the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade just as his marriage has fallen apart. It was fun to see him trying and pull it off, dropping hints all the way until its rather hopeful climax. There are two really unique ones I want to point out. One is “Paris”, where a good-natured but na├»ve journalist does a piece on a small town, which backfires as the town feels betrayed by his, what they think, is an exploitative representation of the town. What the man says and what one other person says toward the end rings of harsh truth and the dishonest feelings we have when we see our good deeds as wholly pure. The other is “Letters to the Academy”, told in letters from a tennis coach to one of his player's father, which quickly becomes something unshakably eerie. I can’t find the bigger picture here, but the story is fascinating. Finally, the last two I want to discuss are “Somebody’s Son”, about a man who, through kindness, is cold-bloodedly trying to force an old couple to sell their land, whose last few lines will cut you quietly and deeply, and the title story, about two former lovers finding themselves alone in the middle of the night, sharing fears and regrets, and finally, some sense of connection they didn’t have while together. These stories show a true hope for a better life for its characters, or at least the tools to get there and the knowledge that you are never as alone as you think.
Rating: 5/5

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