Here comes trouble: The stories of Tom Barbash |

Here comes trouble: The stories of Tom Barbash

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times

Tom Barbash has developed a habit of listening carefully to what his teachers say and recommend. While working as a reporter for upstate New York’s Post-Standard, Barbash, aspiring to write something other than obituaries and police articles, took the advice of a Syracuse University English instructor, Douglas Unger, and read “The Art of Fiction,” by John Gardner. Thus armed, Barbash applied to the writers’ workshop at Syracuse University and, despite a scanty resume, was accepted.

At Syracuse in 1989, Barbash was given “American Short Story Masterpieces.” Twenty-four years later, he still considers the collection seminal to his development as a writer and doesn’t have to strain to recall the writers featured therein, who included Raymond Carver, Joy Williams, Richard Brautigan. Barbash didn’t just read the collection; he consumed it, reading the stories four or five times.

Also included in the anthology was Tobias Wolff, the head of the Syracuse program. From Wolff, Barbash got more than one short story to read.

“You borrowed your mentor’s instincts,” he said. “Tobias would read things in class, and you got to hear the things he said, notice the things he noticed. That was invaluable. So much of writing is learning how to read.”

Possibly the piece of education Barbash has absorbed most thoroughly came from a writer he doesn’t know well, Charles Baxter. Barbash paraphrases what Baxter said about the characters in his work: “I take people I love and visit trouble upon them.”

“I thought that’s a great way to describe what I write,” Barbash, one of the writers participating in the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival, said Monday afternoon outside the Aspen Institute’s Doerr-Hosier Center. “My characters are often in stress, acting out in strange ways — and it’s understandable if you know their circumstances. These people are impacted by something they don’t comprehend.”

Barbash’s next book, “Stay Up With Me,” due for publication in September, is a collection of short stories, giving the author a multitude of ways to visit stress upon his characters. There’s the young woman trying to comfort the parents of the girl she hit with her car. A New Yorker goes to extremes to hide the fact that the reason his wife isn’t at the party he’s hosting is that she has left him. There are relationships of various kinds — romantic, coach-student, parent-child — linked together by their inappropriateness.

“There’s something poignant about the struggles the characters go through,” Barbash said not only of his stories but of writers generally who put their characters through the wringer. “The character doing anything he can to salvage the evening; a mother who so longs for connection to her son — these people want something we all want, a connection, a closeness. And hopefully there’s a little humor to their struggle.”

More apparent than humor is a sense of intimacy. In his short stories, Barbash — whose previous work includes the 2003 novel “The Last Good Chance” and a nonfiction book, “On Top of the World: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick, & 9/11” — strips things down to their essentials, and the effect is to bring the reader in as close as possible. Often it seems as if these are stories being whispered by a person who witnessed the actual events.

“I try to inhabit a consciousness,” said Barbash, who is part of the Aspen Summer Words panel discussion “Finding Your Voice” (3 p.m. Thursday at the Doerr-Hosier Center). “I think it would be impossible for me to write without getting inside somebody. If I do that, I’m getting inside a story and have access to whatever I need.”

Barbash was 20 when his mother died, and he believes that much of the difficulty his characters face stems from that loss and his sense of feeling untethered.

“One of the reasons I write is I was completely ill-equipped. I didn’t know how to comprehend it. No understanding of it,” he said. “My characters have a lot of loss and don’t know what to do with it. They build up defenses or act inappropriately.”

Barbash hasn’t consciously addressed issues concerning his mother’s death in his stories. It is only with some distance that he sees how the experience has informed his work.

“I was better off not knowing that I was writing about myself,” he said. “There’s some inadvertent autobiography going on.”

One aspect of his autobiography, however, has not made its way into his writing. Though Barbash has lived for six years in Mill Valley, a town that sits in the redwoods north of San Francisco, his stories feel the strong gravitational pull of his native New York City. “The Last Good Chance,” which won the California Book Award, is set in a small town in upstate New York. “On Top of the World” is a Wall Street story. His novel in progress centers around the Dakota, an apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and the site’s most notorious incident, the 1980 assassination of John Lennon.

“The more I dig into that time on the Upper West Side, the more I realize what rich material it is and unmined a little bit,” he said.

Completely untouched for Barbash is his current home state.

“You’d think if someone asked if I have a California story to read, I’d have one,” he said.