The stories in Tom Barbash's wondrous and evocative collection explore the myriad ways we try to connect with one another and with the sometimes cruel world around us. The newly single mother in "The Break" interferes in her son's love life over his Christmas vacation from college. The anxious young man in "Balloon Night" persists in hosting his and his wife's annual watch-the-Macy's-Thanksgiving-Day-Parade-floats-be-inflated party while trying to keep the myth of his marriage equally afloat. "Somebody's Son" tells the story of a young man guiltily conning an elderly couple out of their home in the Adirondacks, and the narrator in "The Women" watches his widowed father become the toast of Manhattan's midlife dating scene, as he struggles to find his own footing in life.
The characters in Stay Up with Me find new truths when the old ones have given out or shifted course. In the tradition of classic story writers like John Cheever and Tobias Wolff, Barbash laces his narratives with sharp humor, psychological acuity, and pathos, creating deeply resonant and engaging stories that pierce the heart and linger in the imagination.
The central theme of Barbash's venture into short fiction is grief: whether because of divorce, disease, or death, his characters all struggle to recover from emotional trauma. This struggle takes many forms: a boy copes with feelings of guilt over his brother's death as he and his mother separately grieve in "Howling at the Moon"; in "How to Fall," a girl goes on a skiing trip to overcome a recent breakup; and in the title story, the memory of his parents' collapsed marriage pollutes a young man's fraught relationship with a former lover. Barbash (The Last Good Chance) is most interesting, meanwhile, when exploring the psychosexual bonds between parents and children: in "The Women," for example, a young man whose mother has recently died struggles with his father's sexual dalliances; a professor confronts his repressed desire when his son starts dating a student from his class in "Her Words"; and in "The Break," a recently separated mother fixates upon her son's choice of lovers. Barbash is a strong storyteller who has mastered the architecture of the short story, right down to the tender, subdued prose that delights in sharp details. With a few exceptions, the exemplary craft and tight prose carry satisfying, if familiar, stories.