Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash

I often read short stories alongside a novel, something concise and manageable to serve as a change of pace from my main read. The stories in Stay Up With Me fulfil this role perfectly: several are poignant and melancholy; one or two are painfully amusing; all are very enjoyable indeed.

This collection consists of thirteen stories, some of which have already appeared in literary journals and publications (including McSweeney’s and the Chicago Tribune). As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to try to cover each story in turn. My aim instead is to give a flavour of the themes and a little of what I thought of the set as a whole.

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Barbash’s stories concern themselves with the troubled lives of middle-class Americans, mostly individuals living in New York City or Upstate NY. Several of the stories delve into the relationship between a parent and their child – some are told from the perspective of the parent while others focus on the child’s viewpoint. In many cases, the mother or father is no longer with their original partner – these tales feature the separated, divorced and widowed.

In the opening story of the collection, The Break, a mother watches as her son takes up with a woman she considers to be beneath him, a low-ranking restaurant hostess. The mother is struggling to come to terms with her feelings towards this woman; she is upset and angry.

The mother was surprised by what she felt then – not embarrassed, even for him. She felt enraged and invaded, as though someone had broken into her home and stolen something valuable. (pg. 4)

The mother’s own marriage ended in a separation, so she wants something better for her son – she’s aiming for perfection. The hostess, however, is far from ideal; it’s as if this woman has violated the mother’s hopes and dreams.

She had always imagined a life for her son that would exceed her own: more travel, better clothes and food, a little land maybe, near a body of water; an unimpeachably bright, elegant and decent partner, whom the mother could imagine as a daughter, the one she’s never had, for whom she could now buy sweaters and stylish scarves and sign the gift cards Love, Elaine. But what if what she wanted wasn’t what he wanted? What if this hostess was what he wanted? Her awful little apartment, her abject little life. And what if they had children and they looked not like him at all but like her? She pictured two children, four and six with the hostess’s face, those small dull eyes and those sunken nostrils. (pg. 13-14)

When I think of this collection, one of the main themes that come to mind is a sense of emotional distance. Many of these stories involve people in a state of emotional disconnection, individuals struggling to connect with a member of their family or with life in general.

In Her Words, one of my favourites from the collection, a college lecturer feels compromised when his son, Rajiv, starts dating one of his pupils, an attractive girl by the name of Rachel. Before long, Rachel is sleeping over at the lecturer’s house, padding around with her underwear exposed and observing the father as he reads in bed. The father is uncomfortable with the lack of privacy in his own home, but when he expresses his concerns to Rajiv, the boy is unresponsive. “It’s my house too,” he replies. As the story unravels, it’s as if the traditional roles of parent and child have started to reverse. The son is the one setting the ground rules; the father must reluctantly accept the new order.

It is at times like this that I wonder if it is possible to dislike your offspring, whether the rule about love holds for every father and son. Because I do not like his selfishness when it comes to me.

The fact that his mother and I have been separated for two years now has made me more pliable and then more resentful. It used to be that I set rules and enforced them. Here I’ve let him dictate matters, and so the matter of Rachel Weisman has been closed. She will sleep in our house and I will be uncomfortable. (pg. 40)

In Balloon Night, another favourite from the collection, Timkin is hosting a Balloon Night Party is his city apartment, an annual event where guests can view the balloons being inflated for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. As the story begins, we learn that Timkin’s wife, Amy, has just walked out leaving him with little time to call the guests and cancel the party. Undeterred, he decides to go ahead with the event and pretends his wife is away on business. There’s a bittersweet contrast between the buzz of the party and the fading nature of Timkin’s marriage to Amy. It feels like one of Barbash’s signature stories.

Several of the narratives are melancholy in tone with a poignant emotional hit in the closing scenes; others end on a more hopeful note. Two or three of the stories contain painfully funny scenes – January is one such story, and it also features a failing relationship between a child and their parent. Here’s how it opens:

My mother is dating a man named Russell who owns a boat with the words Smooth Sailing on the back. Russell has put Smooth Sailing away for the winter and he’s trying to talk my mother into an all-day Nordic safari, maybe even a drive out onto frozen Lake Ontario, which on a day like today will feel like the Sahara itself, he says. He shows up at our house with his blue-tinted sunglasses and a neon green ski jacket on, as though there’s a ski lift in our house. (p. 119)

Russell is a bit of a dork. Even though January opens on a humorous note, the story soon turns much sadder and darker in tone, but these emotional changes never feel awkward or forced.

Letters from the Academy (probably the funniest story in the collection) charts the decline in a relationship between a tennis coach and his young protégé, Lee. The narrative is played out through a series of increasingly desperate letters from the coach to Lee’s father. Here’s a tiny snippet to give you a flavour:

While Pete Sampras is a well-known celebrity, I do not know if it is in your wishes for your son to be the hitting partner of a washed-up balding husband of a second-rate Hollywood starlet. (pg. 113)

I very much enjoyed Tom Barbash’s stories in Stay Up With Me. These are mostly quiet, unshowy stories, but no less satisfying as a result. They tend to follow a classic path, one that draws the reader into the narrative as it unfolds, and elements of a character’s backstory are revealed. These tales are gratifying plate-cleansers, and yet they’re memorable and emotionally truthful too. I’m left admiring the author’s ability to capture the changing nature of his characters’ feelings, their conflicting emotions:

…sending Henry plummeting into that blind alley of resentment where he both hated his father for making his mother leave and felt responsible for him in his fragile loneliness. (pg. 137)

Eric (Lonesome Reader) has also reviewed this collection.

Stay Up With Me is published in the UK by Simon & Schuster. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

44 thoughts on “Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash

  1. susanosborne55

    I’m not a short story fan, I’m afraid, but these sound very good and I’m a bit of a sucker for anything set in New York. Barbash’s characterisation sounds particularly strong.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m also drawn to fiction set in New York; there’s just something about the city. It’s a good collection. I ended up reading the stories over the course of a couple of months, fitting them alongside other books, dipping in and out every now and again.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    This sounds really good.

    One thing that seems curious about this collections is that it involves stories from both New York City and Upstate New York. I may be unaware of some works out there, but I think that it is fairly rare for a storyteller to explore people and relationships in both areas. I am very familiar with both places. There is a large cultural divide involved. I wonder if that is expressed here in any way.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a very good point, Brian. I’m not at all familiar with Upstate New York, but the stories set here do feel somewhat different to the city-based tales in Barbash’s collection. The NYC stories (Balloon Night is a good example) tend to feature upscale professional types, whereas those set outside of the city are closer to the stories of writers such as Ron Rash. I don’t know if you’ve ever read any of his work, but Rash writes about the people and culture of areas such as the Appalachian Mountains (in Nothing Gold Can Stay). A different way of life, for sure. (And if you’ve never read Ron Rash, I would certainly recommend his stories.)

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    An author that’s new to me, and the stories sound very bittersweet. Excellent review, Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Bittersweet is a good description – there’s something very true to life about the emotional disconnects portrayed here. These stories are quite different to much of the fiction you tend to read, but if you ever fancy a trip to NYC… :)

      Reply
  4. MarinaSofia

    Hmmm, maybe not quite the subject matter I’m looking for at the moment (I need a break from depressing subject matter, even if the writing itself can be quite humorous). But it does sound like a solid short story collection that I’d like to check out at some later date. Down it goes on my wishlist!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I know what you mean! I felt all wrung out a month or two ago. A Jean Rhys, a Simenon, and Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart was probably not the best sequence of books to choose even though I loved the Rhys. (The Simenon has lingered in my memory, too.)

      I really enjoyed Barbash’s stories – he handles the changes of tone very well. A good collection to run alongside other books.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’re right – they’re probably not your kind of stories, Jane! I enjoy the vicarious reading aspect of blogging too. I’m forever window shopping, looking at the books other bloggers are reading…

      Reply
  5. Caroline

    I think I normally would be very interested in reading this but I own so many short story collections I’ve still to finish or read . . . Enough said.
    I was surprised by the same as Brian – the fact that the stories were set in NY and upsate NY. And that only from a reader’s perspective.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I know – you have to prioritise the books you already own. I’ve been trying to do that too with the #TBR20 idea.

      Yes, the stories and settings are pretty diverse (which is a good thing in many ways). There’s even one featuring a skiing trip to the mountains of Vermont.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          After a few false starts and a bit of pfaffing around, I’ve just re-started a second round of #TBR20. It’s probably the best way for me to make a dent in the piles of unread books at home. I find it helps if I can log books of interest on a wishlist rather than running off to buy them on the spur of the moment. That way I can review the list in another three of four months’ time and decide which books I really want to buy…famous last words there.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d never heard of him before this collection appeared. It looks as if he’s written a novel and a non-fiction work about the CEO of a financial services company that lost several hundred people in the 9/11 attacks. Both of these were published just over ten years ago, so it’s been a while.

      I wouldn’t say this is end-of-year material, but it’s an enjoyable collection of stories nonetheless. Barbash is very good on characterisation and those emotional disconnects between people. Several of the stories have lingered around in my mind even though I started reading them back in early April.

      I’m a fan of the cover too – it’s very nicely done!

      Reply
  6. FictionFan

    I found the character study aspect of these excellent, though some of the stories were a bit fragmentary for my taste – I’m a beginning, middle and end kinda gal. But I loved the way he used humour to lift what could otherwise have been rather depressing with the theme of loss in so many of them, and also varied it up through the structure. A good collection overall.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a fair comment about the fragmentary aspect – in that respect they’re a little like life itself! Yes, I’m with you on the use of humour and the diversity of tones and styles here. It’s nice to see as it suggests he’s a writer who can turn his hand to a range of different approaches. I’m thinking of Letters from the Academy, which is quite different from anything else in the collection!

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    I love short stories (although not always modern ones) and these sound superb. I seem to remember winning a copy of this book which then never arrived – oh well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Actually, I think you would like these stories, Ali. They’re quite diverse, so there’s something here for a range of different readers. What a shame your copy never arrived. Have you asked Elizabeth Preston about it? I’m sure she’d be happy to send you a review copy. If not, I could send you mine (although it might be a few weeks as a friend is keen to borrow it.)

      Reply
  8. Scott W

    I like the cover too (but not the one for the American edition – ick). As for what’s wrapped inside, I have doubts as to whether I’d like it. I seem to have an almost constitutional aversion to contemporary American short stories. But as Fleur notes above, I appreciate the vicarious reading!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ve just had a look at the US cover…oh my, the UK version is so much better!

      That’s a fair call, Scott, as I’m not sure if you’d take to these stories or not (I suspect not). It didn’t surprise me to learn that two or three of them have been published in McSweeney’s – they’re very much in that style. In the meantime though, I’m having a ball with Tristana – it’s a real gem!

      Reply
  9. poppypeacockpens

    I love short stories and try to read at least one a day. I particularly like ones that explore dynamics of relationships including parent & child, so this collection certainly appeals; especially as there appears to be a good mix in tone & mood. Great review :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Poppy. This is one I would recommend to you – I think you’d enjoy them very much. Helen (@Helannsta) enjoyed this collection, too. :)

      Reply
  10. Emma

    Great cover and after looking at the American one, I prefer the British cover too.
    I like the title too, it’s like someone’s begging you to stay awake and listen to the stories they’ll tell you. It evokes a comfortable couch, a nice fire, tea and confidences exchanged on a cozy night.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the cover and title were definitely part of the attraction for me. I love your image of ‘Stay Up With Me.’ It would fit with several of the stories here, although, I might be tempted to swap the tea for a glass or two of bourbon. ;)

      Reply
  11. gertloveday

    I’m always interested in short stories in how the writer sets the reader up – I mean positions the reader, and it’s a very subtle thing. I’ve been thinking about it while reading Rose Tremain’s collection “The American Lover”. I wondered when I read your extracts whether this writer is perhaps a bit predictable in his setup.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think that’s probably a fair observation. Several of the stories follow a fairly traditional arc (although Letters from the Academy is somewhat less conventional than others in this collection). Not that there’s anything wrong with classic/traditional if it’s done well…and these are good stories, thoroughly enjoyable stuff. Not end-of-year highlights material, but memorable nonetheless.

      I’ve heard good things about Rose Tremain’s collection as the title story was up for the BBC National Short Story Award (last year, I think). Do you think you’ll review it? I’ll keep an eye out for it. On the subject of the art of short fiction, have you ever read any of Sarah Hall’s short stories? I thought very highly of her Beautiful Indifference collection.

      Reply
      1. gertloveday

        No I don’t know her at all. Will look for some. Yes, I will be writing about Tremain, Toby Litt and Kirsty Gunn, three of the shortlist for the Edge Hill Prize.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, excellent. I look forward to hearing more! Sarah Hall is well worth a look. I’ve yet to read any of her novels, but her collection of short stories, The Beautiful Indifference, is excellent. It might sound like a strange combination, but her prose is earthy, visceral and beautiful all at once.

          Reply
  12. Gemma

    This has been on my to-read list for a little while, so thank you for reminding me of it Jacqui :) Your review really gave a sense of the collection as a whole, I’m looking forward to reading this one!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great! I hope you enjoy it, Gemma. I think it’s a good collection – maybe not groundbreaking, but pretty solid and memorable. Quite a few of the stories have flitted in and out of my mind over the past few months which is always a good sign. :)

      Reply
  13. 1streading

    A great review (as always) but I don’t feel grabbed by the collection. Sometimes I think there are simply too many new American writers to keep up with!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grant – I didn’t think you would bite on this one! It’s a good collection, but I’d place Fraile’s wonderful stories ahead of these.

      If you’re ever in the mood for another American novel (albeit an older one), something like Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn would be worth a look. ;)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. I turn to novels if I’ve got at least 30 mins to spare – anything less than that tends to feel a bit too piecemeal for me. These short stories are the perfect filler for shorter time slots!

      Reply
  14. litlove

    I really loved this collection, and I’m someone who wouldn’t call myself a natural short story fan. But the writing was so good, and the characters so intriguing. When I read this, I made a note to myself to read more by Tom Barbash and I really must follow up on that. I wish his novels would get published here – I’d be first in the queue. Loved your review, Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks – glad you loved this collection, Victoria! I really enjoyed Barbash’s stories and spacing them out between my other reading worked pretty well for me. (Although I still wonder if the collection as a whole would have had more heft for me if I’d read the stories back-to-back?) Barbash seems to have the knack for sketching memorable characters in just a few pages, doesn’t he? There’s something very true-to-life about them, their feelings and struggles to connect with those around them.

      I would definitely be interested in reading another of his books at some stage. There’s a novel on the way, I believe! He’s also written a non-fiction work about the CEO of a financial services company that lost several hundred people in the 9/11 attacks. It sounds very interesting, worthy of further investigation.

      Reply
  15. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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