Quite often I like to start the day reading a short story. Even if I’m knee-deep in a good novel it’s enjoyable to get a taste of an entirely new perspective that can be consumed in one sitting before going about my day or plunging back into reading a longer narrative. Sometimes the results can feel slight and forgettable. At other times I’m left reeling at the profundity of what I’ve just read and wanting more. Reading through the stories in Tom Barbash’s “Stay Up With Me” made me greedy. I wanted to put off going to work and stay in bed reading through the whole book. The stories are fantastically entertaining and moving in the way they effectively delineate a character’s complex life in a few short pages. His fiction uses a variety of narrative styles capturing a range of perspectives from divorced parents to con artists to teenage boys. Each story empathizes with where that character is in their life at that point in time to give you a refreshingly new perspective.
Many of the stories have to do with family dynamics. Several of the stories deal with a parent’s relationship with their child or a son’s relationship with his mother/father. Barbash captures the way that the wavering romances of family members can affect the rest of the family. In ‘The Women’ a son warily observes the large amount of women his father dates after his mother’s death. His father moves on in his life in a way that he cannot. In thinking of his mother’s passing he observes “When she was on her deathbed, I was still deciding who to be like, and who to rebel against, though I still had time to fail them both.” Because he doesn’t feel like he’s reached a point of success or failure in his life, it feels like his parents have raced forward into death or new relationships without him and left him behind. The story ‘The Break’ in many ways shows this same perspective from the opposite generation where a woman only referred to as “the mother” suspiciously witnesses her college-aged son philandering around with an older woman she considers to be low class. Her life as a divorced woman feels somewhat suspended where she’s resigned herself to believing there won’t be any further enjoyment for her whereas her son is just starting to find his. When thinking of her son “It occurred to the mother that he was better suited for enjoying the world than she was.” While the son is busily transforming into a new role in life as a man, she is trapped in the false belief that she can only be a mother. These stories show the way our identities as members of families can be a kind of trap if we don’t understand ourselves to be continuously evolving multi-faceted individuals.
Other stories detail the experiences of non-traditional family units. In ‘Howling at the Moon’ a character named Lou is introduced to his new family now that his mother is having a serious relationship with a man who has several older children. “It’s a funny thing to meet a group of people older than you and be told that they are your family, you will live with them and not hate them or ignore them or fall in love with them.” There is a haunting sense of possible alternate futures if family relations had worked out differently. His brother died in a car accident when they are very young and this underpins the sibling absence caused by the daughter whose room he inhabits while she’s in Paris. This story speaks so powerfully about grief, emotional distance between family members and the oddity of assimilating into pre-formed family units.
One of the most profound and heartbreakingly poignant stories ‘Somebody’s Son’ depicts a pair of men who visit an old couple who own a farm in the Adirondacks. They try to use underhanded psychologically-manipulative tactics to get them to sell their property at a price substantially below what it is worth to developers. The increasing intimacy between one of the men named Randall and the old couple makes him into a kind of adopted son where the elderly couple have been neglected by their own children. It’s a tragic tale about the devious effect money has upon relationships. When it comes to commerce, caring and love simply become leverage for getting a better deal.
The stories are as equally forceful in their depictions about the complexities of romance. One of my favourite stories ‘Balloon Night’ is about a man named Timkin who throws an annual party in his upscale Manhattan apartment where people can watch the Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons being inflated through the windows. His wife has just left him, but he continues with the celebrations regardless. Ironically he observes: “It was part of being a successful couple, he believed: the capacity to adapt.” Yet, Timkin finds it difficult to adapt now that his wife has left and pretends to the guests that she simply had to be away for work. The setting of the story gives an extremely meaningful perspective on his own life as he observes the party both from within and outside of the apartment. There is an ominous sense of doom as he watches it and struggles to accept his marriage might be over: “It felt like the moment in a movie before something terrible occurred, before the iceberg or the rogue wave. If only I could stop the film right here, he thought.”
Another powerful story which has a deceptively whimsical tone ‘How to Fall’ is narrated by a woman who hesitantly joins her female friend on a ski weekend for singles. The language in this story is much more casual and vernacularly-specific than the other stories. But its insights are no less meaningful in the way it depicts how she continuously thinks back to a past relationship she can’t let go. It touchingly shows the complex feelings experienced through being hurt by romance and learning to endure. Another difficult narrator tells the story in ‘Spectator’ where a man describes his relationship with a girl eighteen years younger than him. He realizes they probably wouldn’t be having an affair if she didn’t come from a hard background or had an abusive mother, yet he persists with the relationship despite how morally dubious it is or her evident desire to move on. Tragically he believes “Things weren’t perfect between us, but I thought being parents would ground us in a good way – rid us of the threat of possibility; I am not good when I have too many options.” His wish to create a new family unit on such a flimsy foundation speaks of the way he desires to trap himself in an idealized situation which is destined to fail.
Barbash uses different forms in certain stories to get his message across. For instance, in ‘Letters from the Academy’ an official from a tennis academy writes to the father of a sixteen year old student who he perceives to possess great potential. The story is only told in letter form where the man writing the letters becomes increasingly creepy and possessive about the boy in his charge. The story offers multiple twists while saying a lot about obsession and insecurity, yet I felt it could have been strengthened if the letters were dated so the reader could see how the transformation in tone is stretched over a defined time period.
The title story ‘Stay Up With Me’ is entirely different from the other stories in the way it wavers between reality and hallucination as it’s protagonist Henry dreams about his young life, difficult relationship and aspirations of becoming a screenplay writer. When describing the characters’ intimacy Barbash writes “They are fluent in each other’s faults and wounds and hypocrisies, and so sleeping together has the feel of sleeping with a failed part of themselves, like pornography with familiar dialogue.” This is one of the most striking things I’ve read about contemplating the rollicking interplay of emotions that can feed into sex and how intimacy can be indelibly tied with frustration.
Tom Barbash short fiction has appeared in many highly respected American publications. It’s fantastic that these meaningful stories have been collected into a single book rather than remain loose in various journals. His extraordinary talent is for giving a panoramic perspective of his narrators’ lives so both the past and possible future are spread around the present. His characters are touchingly presented as being caught in moments of time where their identity is wavering between transformation or becoming locked within an immutable form. “Stay Up With Me” gathers together an extremely robust group of complex impassioned stories.