Dry humor and rotten luck abound in this collection of short personal essays.
In his first essay, Barber recounts life as a droll cafe manager, interviewing for a middle-management job, and being peed on outside of a cafe. From there, he pivots awkwardly to his adventures as a landlord with a difficult tenant, complete with manic email exchanges with lots of capitalization and exclamation points. The majority of the essays feature Barber as a teenager, narrating his years playing various instruments in school bands. His humor when recounting high school is natural (tall red plumes on the marching-band hats lend the band the nickname the “Lockstep Tampons”), and he has a nemesis in the cocky and punishing band director, Mr. Millson. In another essay, Barber challenges his school’s dress code by defiantly wearing a skirt and winds up in a fight with a robot. Later essays reveal more personal accounts about, for example, divorce and the loss of his brother. Barber has a knack for mining a story for its quirkiest and most humorous details. At first, the disjointed subject matter makes it difficult for the reader to grasp just who this narrator is—a barista, an out-of-luck landlord, a band geek, a hero? While the Pacific Northwest is the obvious backdrop for these essays, it’s harder to discern when they’re taking place, two years ago or 20 years ago. The best essays are the vignettes tied by a common theme—high school–band antics, his brother Patrick—where the reader inhabits one world for longer than just a few pages. There are a few opaque essays (in “Morbid Curiosity,” something indecipherable has happened involving a lawsuit). It’s refreshing to read the concluding essay, “The Prank,” where Barber lucidly and tenderly recalls his siblings.
Former band geeks may recognize themselves in some of Barber’s high school memories, but more universal moments are rare.