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.
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.