Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash, book review: A New York state of troubled mind


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The Independent Culture

The stories in this radiant collection bear more than a passing resemblance to those of the original master of East Coast American suburbia, John Cheever.

The New York settings offer an immediately recognizable literary topography that's then carried through in terms of both the gentle but haunting melancholy that pervades the prose, as well as Barbash's elegantly curbed and measured style; a restraint that matches that experienced by his protagonists in the daily disappointments of their lives.

"The Break" recounts an awkward Christmas vacation spent by a college student with his mother in her apartment as he hooks up with a restaurant hostess 10 years his senior. Impersonally referred to as "mother" and "son" throughout, the reader is relegated to the position of something of a Peeping Tom; the same role played by the mother as she spies on the two lovers through the half-open door of a room, or stalks them down the city streets at night, peering through the steamed-up windows of a bar. It's an uneasy viewpoint, and one from which we come to realize that what the mother fears in the hostess, that "she had simply seemed too desperate, too lonely, too hungry", is exactly what we see in the mother herself.

This detachment between the author and his characters is most evident in the stories narrated in the third person, but even those in the first are imbued with a similar sense of distance, as when the then 12-year-old narrator of "Howling at the Moon" patiently waits his turn in a wine-soaked exchange of death stories amongst his older soon-to-be step-siblings to tell how he watched his brother die in a car crash.

The theme of broken relationships runs throughout the collection; from those between parents and children, through romantic entanglements – most notably in "Balloon Night", the story of a man attempting to keep the illusion of his failed marriage afloat while throwing his pre-Thanksgiving balloon night party – to the more precarious encounters between strangers. There's a strong sense of the lasting ramifications of certain moments – a young girl knocked down by a car on a country road, or a woman who takes a new boyfriend to the same bar she and her ex used to frequent – but also a sense of hope for the future. "You're not who you think you are," an elderly woman tells a young con man who's been stealing from her. "Give it time. I know. You'll find your peace."