If masterful new books from Lorrie Moore and Graham Swift, as well as prizes for George Saunders and Colin Barrett, signal that the short story is in rude health, then Tom Barbash flexes the form’s fettle to obscene levels of fineness in his debut collection. Stay Up with Me belongs to the tradition of the classic American story and, like John Cheever, Barbash dramatises the messy lives of New Yorkers, in the city and upstate. His stories are quietly subversive, rather than explicitly innovative, and unsettling denouements lurk like black ice, ready to send characters reeling while readers wonder what it all means. “Birthday Girl”, for example, didn’t read like a standout at first but, by the end, the legacy of the narrator’s mistakes feels eternal. “Should have seen that coming,” I thought, whenever a story’s cumulative weight hit me, but I was consistently surprised.
Some stories can be twinned. Lonely youths in “January” and “Howling at the Moon” are caught up in the whims of their parents’ love lives, but life changes fast for all Barbash’s characters. We encounter them after break-ups, deaths, when their sense of themselves has blurred or the gradations of ageing and social decay take their toll. In “Somebody’s Son”, there’s a heart-stopping moment when an elderly woman tells the conman who’s stealing from her: “You’re not who you think you are.” I cared about Barbash’s characters and wanted to match-make the widowed father in the closing story, “The Women”, with the troubled single mother in the opener, “The Break.”
Are there duds? Slices of angst in “How to Fall” and the title story feel slight compared to the emotion elsewhere. “Letters from the Academy”, narrated by a creepy tennis coach, descends into farce instead of fulfilling its sinister potential. . The stories benefit from their tight focus, though, and I skidded about their rich, bleak terrain, reminded of a poem by Denis Johnson, one of America’s great story writers, which spies: “A sadness that waits at the end of the street.”
Hope comes with caveats. The middle-aged teacher and his 19-year-old girlfriend in “Spectator” will be happier if they separate. The grieving narrator of “The Women” finds somebody to confide in but will their relationship last? Savour the good times, Barbash urges, before the bad ones return. He sequences his stories as carefully as he constructs them, and they amount to a collection which, with wit and imagination, poses a universal question: How can we live in the light of the blows life deals us?