Blesok no. 56, September-October, 2007
Later, at the Bar
In Rebecca Barry’s graceful, loose-limbed stories, characters congregate at Lucy’s Tavern and talk and fight about love. “Later, at the Bar” is a novel written in stories, an intimate study of lonely people that hearkens back to Sherwood Anderson’s classic “Winesburg, Ohio”. Barry’s people live in a small town in upstate New York; they are farmers, food truck drivers, cooks, small-time felons, and advice columnists. They cheat, steal, and yearn. They make bad decisions, even ridiculous ones, but Barry’s luminous generosity shines through all these stories.
The best story is the funny, bittersweet “Men Shoot Things to Kill Them.” Its premise is simple: a jealous husband wants to check up on his wife. Grace has taken a ride with another man to a bowling tournament forty-five minutes away, and Harlin is considering shooting out the man’s tires. Matters escalate, of course – when Harlin arrives at the bowling alley with his brother and brother’s ex-wife in tow, he is late, drunk, and confrontational. Many fiction writers would have wrapped it up here, but Barry pushes on. The rest of story feels new, as if Barry has discovered a fresh way to write short stories. She has given the story space to breathe: on the drive home, the characters unite behind a cause and then splinter apart into their solitary lives again. The piece mingles slapstick (involving a drooling, heartbroken goose) and sorrow to beautiful effect.
These stories also possess smart dialogue and a psychological insight bordering on the Munroesque. Whiling away one afternoon, Harlin and his gang drink and discuss a young girl who menaces animals:
Even Harlin had to laugh at that. He wasn’t proud of it, but he liked it when other people had bad kids. He hadn’t seen his own girl in years, didn’t have a clue what he’d say to her if he did, and other people’s rotten kids made him proud of the child he didn’t know.
This is not simple schadenfreude, but rather a wobbly glee that (barely) covers a painful absence. Here, and elsewhere, Barry reaches deeper into psychology. Although her characters live relatively straightforward lives of work, love, and recreational drinking, their inner lives are varied and complex.
Later in the book, Grace attends a wake and swaps stories with two young men. One of them tells her a dark narrative about his childhood, and it compounds with her grief over the death they’ve all gathered to mourn, and becomes something larger.
The novel’s last story (from which this quotation is taken) acts as a macro lens, showing the larger landscape. For several characters, it demonstrates how earlier events come to bear on their present. And it also performs the action that Grace describes above: opening up the other stories, connecting them.
“Later, at the Bar” contains many fine stories, but a few in the collection don’t work. In “Instructions for a Substitute Bus Driver” Madeline Harris outlines her bus route, describes the children who ride her bus, and tells the story of her daughter’s abortion. She portrays the children and their very real troubles with sympathy, but the interweaving of their lives with her own and her daughter’s own feels forced. The transitions between these two worlds are awkward. Other stories such as “Newspaper Clipping” are simply flimsier – more like vignettes than stories.
Lucy, the original proprietor of Lucy’s Tavern, dies quietly one night in the middle of a snowstorm. When someone finds her the next day, she is lying face up in her front yard, her hands tucked behind her thighs, “as if she were waiting for something wonderful to happen.” All of the characters here want that, too – but they do not wait lying down. Instead, they act – stealing “takeout” from a delivery driver, driving drunk, hooking up with exes – and then gather at Lucy’s to make sense of their messy lives. While they cannot always find the logic, their attempts are marked by earnestness, expansiveness, and hope. That same spirit imbues this lovely debut.