Joy and Sorrow Cross Paths in a Small-Town Tavern
A Contrary review by Shevi Berlinger


In Later, At the Bar, a set of salty characters kiss, marry, and drink their way through their search for love. Rebecca Barry sets her first novel in an upstate New York town at an undetermined time, with no politics or natural disasters to date it, save two strong winter storms that open the book, and a jukebox in Lucy’s Tavern playing George Strait’s “All My Ex’s Live in Texas.” The novel consists of 10 interwoven stories, each returning in some way to Lucy’s, where, “like a good wedding… love, sex, hope, and grief [are] just in the air.” Established by an Alaskan fisherwoman who curiously disappears at the beginning of the novel, Lucy’s recalls the television series Northern Exposure in its images of rural life and character. If Lucy’s is central to the town, it also sits on the edges of its residents’ lives, the place they return to when they push their own personal boundaries too far. As her characters move from one lover to another, always returning to the same bar year after year, Barry explores how acts of moving and staying in the same spot both measure the distance love travels—and whether these opposite acts need to be at odds. “It might just be human nature to mess up one more time when you meet the right person,” Barry writes, hinting at the forgiveness her characters seek. Barry seems intrigued with “the rough and beautiful ways people [carry] their loneliness,” yet her resilient cheer grounds the novel’s tribulations.
Barry seems to revel in being an archaeologist of town lore. Her dialogue-heavy stories are filled with newspaper clippings, letters, and notes and quirky, illuminating details. Linda Hartley, the town advice columnist, writes to her readers on post-it notes. Twin brothers Harlin and Cyrus Wilder travel to a bowling alley one night looking for Harlin’s wife and unexpectedly witness two birds who seem more humanly devoted to each other than most people manage to be. A desperate teacher almost kisses her high school student after her marriage to a gay man fails. Madeline Harris, the school bus driver, writes a note describing in sensitive detail the students who sit behind her. The great charm of the novel is the sweet matter-of-factness with which the characters face their relationships, though the sweetness could at times be deepened by descriptions of greater interior struggle. 
        The novel’s form leaves the inevitable gaps between stories unfilled (most concern who will ultimately commit to whom). Figuring out how the stories fit together leaves room for the reader to puzzle together the pieces, but these spaces keep the characters at a slight distance. Ultimately, the novel is a shorthand comedy of manners, or the lack of them, rather than a thorough examination of the psyches below. At heart, this small, bright book, with print slightly larger than expected, is a novel of optimism and forgiveness.

Shevi Berlinger was managing editor of Two Lines: World Writing in Translation. She lives in New York and is at work on a book of poetry.

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commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | autumn 2007
 
Later, at the Bar
Rebecca Barry
2007,  Simon & Schuster

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