ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Picador USA, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.
AWARDS, HONORS: Nelson Algren Award for short fiction; James Michener Award, 2002, for The Last Good Chance.
The Last Good Chance, Picador USA (New York, NY), 2002.
On Top of the World, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor of short stories to periodicals, including Tin House, Story, and Virginia Quarterly Review
SIDELIGHTS: Tom Barbash has examined the process of writing through a variety of careers. He has studied writing at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop; has taught writing at Stanford University and at several writing festivals; and has worked as a reporter for New York's Syracuse Post Standard. He has written several short stories as well as a 448-page novel titled The Last Good Chance, which won the prestigious James Michener Award.
Barbash was born and raised in New York. After graduating from Haverford College, he worked as a reporter in Oswego, a town similar to the fictional upper-New-York-state community of Lakeland, featured in his award-winning first novel. One of the novel's main characters, Steve Turner, also shares some familiarity with the author: Turner is a "typical lovable rogue reporter," wrote Bob Hoover, for Post-Gazette.com. The other protagonist in the novel is Jack Lambeau, a young man who left the small town of Lakeland, received a solid education, and then went to New York City where he established his profession as a municipal planner. Jack returns to Lakeland with a dream of revitalizing his hometown. Dreams, however, are not always as easily reproduced in reality as they are on paper, a fact Jack soon discovers.
Lakeland is a port city that has seen better days. Gutted warehouses, vacant stores, and rusted cars line its streets. However, this is not what Jack sees. He is a visionary and senses that Lakeland could be a bustling tourist location. The leaders of Lakeland like the dream Jack presents to them. There is, however, one major problem that threatens to undermine the whole adventure. Over the years, Lakeland has accumulated a large storage of toxic waste buried under its waterfront property; and Jack's brother, Harris, who has some personal toxins of his own, threatens to crash his brother's party. The particulars contained in Barbash's story about the political maneuvering of small towns prompted a reviewer for Publishers Weekly to call the author's grasp of how small-town politics work admirable, adding that The Last Good Chance has an "extraordinary empathic reach."
Although Rachel Howard of the San Francisco Examiner found flaws with some of the characterizations, she concluded that Barbash's book is "a pleasant surprise": "Barbash's characters may not be fully fleshed, but their dilemmas are rich in complexity." The dilemmas the two male protagonists face include Jack's need to ignore the corruption at city hall while the mayor tries to rid the development site of the toxins. Meanwhile, reporter Steve Turner becomes aware of the mayor's plans and must decide whether or not to write an exposé on the corruption, a story that could ruin all of Jack's plans.
David A. Berona in Library Journal wrote that the novel has "a well-paced drama with strong characters," and a Kirkus Reviews writer complimented the book, calling The Last Good Chance "a nice mixture of narrative, history, setting, and character."
Barbash turned away from fiction for his second book and focused on the events and consequences of an American catastrophe. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) on September 11, 2001, caused more damage and loss of life to one particular company than to any other. That company was Cantor Fitzgerald, a bond-trading firm lead by Howard Lutnick, who had taken his new company to the top of Wall Street by the time he turned thirty; but that was before the attacks. On September 11, Cantor Fitzgerald lost nearly seven hundred employees when the WTC buildings collapsed. The only members to survive were those that had not shown up to work that day, including Lutnick himself, who had taken the time to drive his son to his first day of kindergarten.
Barbash's On Top of the World covers the story of Lutnick's economic rise to become one of the country's richest men. Barbash also covers the harrowing account of Lutnick's valiant attempts to save his employees' lives, which almost resulted in his own death. Lutnick was supposed to coauthor On Top of the World, but it was Barbash who wrote most of the first draft of the book. When it came time to edit the final galleys before the publisher sent the book to press, Lutnick was too busy trying to piece together his life and his business to successfully put his mind to the task of finishing the book, although there were several all-night sessions between Lutnick and Barbash. In the end, according to Meryl Gordon in the New York Metro online, Lutnick stated: "It was intended to be a collaborative thing, but I wasn't able to participate at the level I wanted to. I thought it was fair for it to be Tom's book." While the book was planned for publication on the first anniversary of the terrorist attack, it was delayed slightly to make adjustments upon Lutnick's conceding his role as coauthor, and was released in early 2003.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, September 1, 2002, Elsa Gaztambide, review of The Last Good Chance, p. 54.
Examiner, September 2, 2002, Rachel Howard, "Love in the Time of Hepatitis C."
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2002, review of The Last Good Chance, p. 896.
Library Journal, August, 2002, David A. Berona, review of The Last Good Chance, p. 138.
New York Times Book Review, September 8, 2002, Jennifer Reese, "Bowling Alleys and Big Hair," p. 17.
Publishers Weekly, August 5, 2002, review of The Last Good Chance, p. 53.
New York Metro,http://www.newyorkmetro.com/ (December 9, 2002), Meryl Gordon, "Cantor Fizzle."