Romantic collapses and mismatches abound, often in all-too-familiar ways, in the debut story collection from Barbash (On Top of the World, 2003, etc.).
If Raymond Carver had lived in Manhattan, he might have delivered stories like “The Break,” in which a serious author despairs over the low-rent, bosomy waitress her college-age son hooks up with, or “Balloon Night,” in which a man tries to cover up for his estranged wife’s absence at a party celebrating the Thanksgiving Day parade. (His apartment offers a view of the parade balloons being inflated, hence the title.) The Carver-esque strokes are evident: The clipped style, the bad romantic choices, the sense that the protagonists are victims of self-delusion, a tad too dim to recognize the awfulness of their predicaments. If the approach is derivative, Barbash at least has clear empathy for the many adolescents who inhabit his stories: In “Howling at the Moon,” a teenager awkwardly adjusts to his mother’s relationship to a wealthy man, the boy calibrating his movements among his possible future stepsiblings, while the boy in “January” takes a certain glee in watching his mother’s new boyfriend stumble. Yet each busted-love tale moves to well-worn conclusions, from the foolhardy May-December romance (“Spectator”) to the story about a man anxious about one of his students dating his son (“Her Words”). Barbash has a gift for crispness and clarity, and he can be entertaining when he busts out of the upscale dirty-realist groove, as in an epistolary story in which a tennis academy headmaster loses his grip on a star student. But Barbash's attempts to explore class conflict lead to missteps like “Paris,” in which a reporter condescends to the poverty-stricken town he reports on, with an ending that’s less comeuppance than non sequitur.
Graceful but with few surprises.