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This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the October 9, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A Reporter’s First Novel

First novels are like first babies — they provoke

outrageous speculation, like "Could this infant grow up to be

president?" and "Could this writer be the next Charles Dickens

or Anne Tyler?" If the author has a Princeton connection, that

ratchets up the anticipation level.

Tom Barbash, author of "The Last Good Chance" (Picador USA),

does have a Princeton connection; he is married to Hilary Beggs (they

are the couple in the photo at right). She is the daughter of the

late James Beggs, who had been a neurosurgeon at Princeton Medical

Center. After going to Princeton High, Beggs graduated from Washington

& Lee in 1990 and earned her PhD in neurobiology at University of

North Carolina. Now she and Barbash live in San Francisco, where she

is doing post doctoral work.

Barbash’s debut also comes with more than the usual anticipatory distinction

— impressive awards for his short stories, prestigious lectureships

at Stanford, San Francisco State, and the Iowa Writers Workshop —

and the James Michener prize for this book. A big curiosity factor

(Barbash wrote the just-released fly-on-the-wall chronicle "On

Top of the World" of how Cantor Fitzgerald’s CEO revived his company

after 9/11) boosts interest in his personal appearance. He will sign

both books at Barnes & Noble MarketFair on Thursday, October 10, at

7 p.m.

First novels also trigger intrusive comparisons between protagonist

and writer. On the telephone from San Francisco, Barbash fields those

questions with the easygoing manner of one of his characters, reporter

Steven Turner, and readily admits to the resemblance.

Raised in Manhattan, the son of a labor lawyer, Barbash went to Haverford

(Class of ’83) and has a master’s from the Iowa Writers Workshop.

Early in his career he spent several years at the Syracuse Post Standard,

as a reporter in Oswego (aka Lakeland, where the novel takes place)

churning out two stories daily plus two weekend features. "We

had a tremendous amount of freedom to develop sources and find out

what was really going on," says Barbash.

Barbash has the kind of conversational empathy that

serves reporters well — it lulls you into telling your life story.

His character Turner has similar talents, he writes, as a "hack

psychologist, fielding fears, or justifications, or general disillusionment;

people’s philosophies, scatological or otherwise. . . like an anthropologist

who’d stumbled into an arcane culture. A world that might not exist

in another ten years."

Another protagonist is Turner’s friend Jack, a municipal planner who

returns to his backward hometown and gets excited about the possibilities

for development. Jack gives his fiancee a tour: "He introduced

her to upstate kitsch and bad taste, all the ornaments on people’s

lawns, the swans and plastic Jesuses, Betty Boops, and Wiley Coyotes,

and also meaner-looking lawns with old car parts scattered about amongst

the thistles. Then he took her out to eat some classic Lakeland fried

food: haddock, chicken, and steak. `Everything’s fried here,’ he explained,

`even the ketchup.’ It was his skill to see always what could be,

to see a vacant briar-filled space and picture it filled with shops

and restaurants, to see a broken warehouse and imagine it packed with

fresh food stalls, to see scarred ground and imagine a boardwalk."

The plot: Jack’s ambitious development ideas are threatened by a toxic

waste cover-up that seems small at first but turns macabre. Turner

must choose between getting the scoop of his career or betraying Jack

(while Turner is having an affair with Jack’s fiancee).

Barbash invests that plot with the reporter’s eye for detail, as in

this passage where one of the men involved in the cover-up watches

fellow churchgoers taking communion: "the razor-nicked men, the

powdery old ladies, the angel-faced teenage girls, the boys reluctantly

dressed in collared shirts and neckties, hair oiled, hungry for reverence,

and all of them puffed up with God afterward as if they’d just left

a big buffet."

This author has a fervent testimony about the importance of author’s

parties: He met his wife at one. "Hilary has always been a big

reader," says Barbash, "and she has been a terrific reader

for my work. She has a perfect ear for when things are working and

when they are not, and invariably she is right."

— Barbara Fox

Tom Barbash, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, 609-897-9250.

The author introduces his first novel, "The Last Good Choice,"

a vision of ambition, corruption, and love in upstate New York. Free.

Thursday, October 10, 7 p.m.


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