🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
Tom Barbash’s collection of 13 stories has been nominated for the 2015 Folio Prize. Each of the stories has one central viewpoint, sometimes given in third person and sometimes first. The main characters vary in age and gender but in almost every case they tend to be dealing with some form of loss – sometimes romantic loss, but often grief over the loss of a parent or a child. However that makes the collection sound more downbeat than it is. While some of the stories are quite moving, many of them are lifted by a touch of humour in the telling.
Although I’ve been reading a lot of short stories recently, it’s still a form I struggle with. I’m aware of the fact that I like stories to have a plot – a beginning, middle and end – and that this isn’t always the case with shorts. Barbash’s stories are more in the form of character studies for the most part, and often seem to stop rather than end. This left me feeling dissatisfied with many of them, though my dissatisfaction was usually caused by the fact that the characters and situations had interested me and I wanted to see them taken through to a resolution. On the few occasions that the story came to some kind of firm conclusion, I found I enjoyed them a good deal, but with the rest I was left feeling a little let down – a clash between author’s style and reader’s preference, I think, rather than a real criticism of Barbash’s skill.
There is a theme in many of them of dysfunctional relationships between parents and children, often with sexual jealousy thrown into the mix. So we have the mother who becomes obsessively jealous of her son’s relationship with a waitress, and the father who finds himself having sexual feelings for his son’s girlfriend. But there is always an added layer of depth, an examination of the cause behind these feelings, and this is the real interest of the story.
Here are a few that I particularly enjoyed – individually each of these would get a five-star rating from me:
Howling at the Moon – a tale of a young boy who had been the accidental cause of the death of his brother some years before, and the emotional distance this has caused between himself and his mother. Barbash leaves the guilt and grief skilfully understated, which I felt actually added to the emotional impact of this one.
Letters from the Academy – this is written as a series of letters from a tennis coach to the father of a young player about whom he has become obsessed. This is the most overtly humorous of the stories as we have to read between the lines of this man who clearly thinks his increasingly crazed behaviour is normal. Pete Sampras puts in a cameo appearance, which added a nice touch. And beneath the humour is a layer of pathos that gives the story some depth.
Paris – a tale of a newspaper man who does an expose of the poverty-ridden lives of the people of the run-down town of Paris (somewhere in America – not Paris, France). This one looks at how the journalist’s own worthy motivations to highlight the blight that poverty causes blinded him to the effect of his article on the people he used. Quite different from the other stories in the book, very well written, and it made me wish that Barbash had tackled subjects like this more often.
The Women – told from the perspective of a teenage boy whose mother has died, this is the story of the different ways in which the boy and his father come to terms with their loss, and of the boy coming slowly to an adult realisation of why his father has dealt with it as he has. Again this story has a more complete resolution, and the characterisation of both father and son is excellent.
On the whole, the storytelling is done quite conventionally, but Barbash mixes it up stylistically occasionally by, for example, giving us one story written in the form of letters, and another written in the second person. I’m not a huge fan of stylistic tricks, but these worked well for the subject matter of each. The characterisation throughout is the main strength of the collection, ringing true even when the circumstances might easily have led to them becoming unbelievable or caricatured. The scenarios are more variable, some excellent but others too slight or too contrived to satisfy. However the majority of the stories are either good or excellent, with only a few that I would rate as no more than average. A good collection overall, then, and I would be interested to read one of Barbash’s novels, since I suspect his writing would work better for me within the longer format.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.