In a reversal of the normal career arc, Tom Barbash has waited 10 years after the publication of his first novel to produce a short story collection. The 13 stories of Stay Up with Me are both contemporary and timeless, and reveal Barbash as a writer of abundant talent when it comes to short fiction.
From the opener, “The Break,” where the ultimate helicopter mother attempts to manipulate her son’s dating life, a preoccupation with relationships between parents and children is a persistent theme. In “Howling at the Moon,” the narrator reflects from the distance of early adulthood on his place in a blended family in the aftermath of a fatal accident he caused as a child. “January” portrays a tension-filled relationship between the adolescent narrator and his mother’s boyfriend as the former’s father lies dying of cancer. And in “The Women,” a story that’s something of its mirror image, a young man struggles to accept his father’s active dating life in the wake of his mother’s death.
In a recent interview with The Rumpus, Barbash conceded, “I’m suspicious of epiphanies, because they so rarely last.” That reticence is evident in these stories, as his characters are more likely to stumble toward self-knowledge than firmly grasp it. The protagonist of “Somebody’s Son,” who’s involved in purchasing rural real estate at distressed prices, is told by an elderly seller after he’s closed a transaction, “You’re not who you think you are. Give it time. I know. You’ll find your peace.” In “Balloon Night,” Timkin, whose wife has left him, applauds himself for maintaining the deception that they’re still together at a Thanksgiving Eve party high above the Upper West Side street where the Macy’s Parade balloons are being inflated.
Not all of these stories deal with such emotionally fraught material. “Letters from the Academy” is a wry epistolary tale that features the increasingly frantic letters of Maximilian Gross, head of the Tennis Academy, to the father of his protégé Lee, as the young man slips away from him. When Lee abandons the school to become Pete Sampras’ practice partner, Maximilian dismisses the legendary tennis star as the “washed-up balding husband of a second-rate Hollywood starlet.”
Tom Barbash put aside his work as a reporter to write fiction. It’s fitting, then, to think of the precisely observed stories that compose this collection as news bulletins from the front lines of our fragile and complicated emotional lives.