Is it just a coincidence that after reading Tom Barbash’s remarkable collection of short stories Stay Up With Me, I actually did stay up? Like many a good book, or work of art, the book left me with a residue of feeling that (in this case) kept me tossing and turning.
I will not say that I had an “epiphany,” precisely because Barbash works with the anti-epiphany. There are “moments,” but those moments are undercut by the scorn, ineptitude, and mere disinterest of the characters.
He carefully sets the reader up—these characters are going to feel something BIG—and boom! The moment is squashed by either the numbness or the fragility of the characters. The characters have reached a point where they can’t be reached, not for a long shot.
This is the case with the protagonist, a teenaged boy, in the story “Howling at the Moon.” In this story, Lou gets caught up in the lives of his stepfather’s children. Their lives appear richer than the solitary life Lou and his mother have been living after the death of his older brother.
His stepsiblings are an arty crew, playing sax, refinishing chairs, rehearsing plays—all the while on vacation in Maine. Eventually Lou reveals his secret to them—that he inadvertently caused his brother’s death.
Lou holds this grief and can’t seem to let go. He feels his flighty mother (she pretty much abandons her son during the vacation, choosing decedent meals and sailing over him) blames him for his brother’s death. (And perhaps she does.)
This is an ongoing theme in the book—can we forgive? One night Lou’s mom wants to re-bond with her son. She wakes Lou up and suggests they “howl at the moon” like they used to when the brother was alive.
Half-heartedly Lou howls. Later he recalls, “I looked away from her to the black water, black as ink. I am thirty-one now, with my own children, and live across the country from my mother and Norman. We see each other only occasionally, but even in a year when we did not speak at all I never felt so far from her as I did right then.”
The relationships between children and parents are examined throughout the collection. Many writers have tackled some of the themes Barbash works with—loss, misplaced desire, grief—but Barbash does so with finesse and a subtly that is rare.
The first story in the book, “The Break” dazzled me. In “The Break” an eighteen-year old boy is spending his Christmas break with his mother. The mother is obviously proud of her boy and they become chummy—eating pizza together and laughing over films they view. They seem to be on the same wavelength and Barbash even hints at an undercurrent of sexuality between the two of them.
They seem to be on the same wave length that is, until an older woman, a hostess at the pizza place where they eat, starts dating the son. According to the mom, the hostess is, “A good ten years older than the boy, and not what you’d call pretty. Though thin and busty, she had a somewhat pinched nose and a dull cast to her eyes.”
The mother is repulsed. For whatever reason—class, social standing, age—the mother does not think the woman is good enough for her boy. She fixates on the woman’s “vacant” eyes. When she catches the woman and her son together in her apartment, she becomes furious.
Barbash doesn’t vilify the mother. It is to his credit, that in spite of her snobbery, he makes her sympathetic. Similarly, he shows the sweetness and vulnerability of the son. The story is compelling throughout and heartbreaking.
Exploring the complex interplay between family, lust, sensuality, and ambition has rarely been done so well,
Barbash is one of those writers who makes writing look easy. His writing never feels strained or artificial. Perhaps that is because Barbash worked as a reporter before devoting his life full-time to fiction writing.
He has one story that is actually about a journalist—a do-gooder type who wants to expose the stress and strain of a small town in upper New York. The tension in this story lies between the journalist and the townspeople, who feel that they have been stereotyped (or worse) as they read the journalist’s investigative reporting.
Perhaps because of his journalistic training, Barbash shows restraint in his work. But there’s also grace in his work and complexity. He addresses the thorny issues in our lives—relationships we might not be proud of, actions that are cruel, and lies we tell our families and ourselves.
Of course these lies can smother us—it just won’t happen in a moment.