The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts November 4, 2005

Barbash reading only disappoints

In a season characterized by dynamic, well-attended events sponsored by the creative writing program, Tuesday’s reading by Tom Barbash was surprisingly lackluster. Low attendance, venue issues and audience lethargy contributed to what turned out to be an unremarkable, though not altogether boring, event.

Barbash, a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop and a lecturer at Stanford University’s esteemed creative writing program, has published novels, short stories and a work of journalistic nonfiction about the attacks of Sep. 11, 2001. That he has attended practically every renowned writing program in the country became a running joke over the course of the afternoon.

After a brief and casual introduction by Dan Chaon, Oberlin creative writing professor and friend of the writer, Barbash spoke a bit about his award-winning book The Last Good Chance, selecting one page to share with the audience. The book, he said, was about “New York, upstate and downstate, and I think in some ways it turns out to be about red and blue — red and blue state issues.”

The Last Good Chance tells the story of a man who moves (back) upstate from New York City with his wife in order to redesign his hometown’s waterfront. Fidelity, economic class, inspiration and identity become key words for the novel’s characters, who engage in the sort of dramatic plotline that would do a Best Picture nominee proud.

The page Barbash chose to read took place early in the novel, when the two main characters, Jack and Anne, first arrive in Jack’s hometown. Jack relates the eccentricities of small-town, upstate life in the manner of an abashed former redneck: “‘Everything is fried here,’ he said, ‘even the ketchup.’”

For his second selection, Barbash debuted a short story, which he had started, put aside, and then massively revised into its current incarnation. Called “My Father’s Women,” the long short-story narrates 20-something Andrew’s attempts to cope with his mother’s death from cancer and his father’s sudden and fruitful interest in other women. Barbash’s writing belied a comfortable facility with language, making for a technically flawless and flowing piece.

“His fiction was straightforward and humorous,” said junior Beth Rogers.

Several chuckle-inducing character interactions energized the story, such as Andrew’s excuse for refusing a massage at his father’s gym: “The idea of somebody rubbing me down with oil seemed too emotionally risky.”

Overall, however, the story imparted a watery, if pleasant, flavor. Though well strung-together and realistic, its characters’ observations and sentiments were innocuous and a bit platitudinous; Andrew’s transformation from angst-ridden layabout to hopeful young person rescued by love was unsurprising and nice, at best.

There were other issues as well that could have improved the event. “The venue was bad,” said junior Casey Metz. “I went to a reading in the Fava recently that was much more intimate and conducive to question-asking than the big old lecture hall...He was too physically far away from us.”

The small audience was scattered throughout the room and Barbash’s wonderful voice — quiet, determined and even — was lost in cavernous King 306.


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