Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Toga Party" by John Barth

Deal Me In Lite, Week 2: "Toga Party" by John Barth

For week two of my Deal Me In Lite challenge, my half-deck of cards presented me with the two of clubs, which takes me to The Best American Short Stories 2007.  This volume is interesting to me because it is edited by Stephen King, himself a pretty fine short story writer, although that is not what he is best known for, of course.

“Toga Party” is an interesting, yet disturbing story.  The central event is the toga party of the title, a soiree being thrown by a couple as a kind of housewarming party to celebrate the finishing of their house, which sounds pretty much like a "McMansion," as Barth describes it in the story.

Why a toga party?  No one in the story seems to know, except that it sounds like great fun to them, and they spend many hours thinking about what to wear and also what to say as their “password” upon entering the party – some phrase in Latin is to be uttered by the guest as they arrive, and this is one of the only really humorous parts of the story, as some of the choices of phrase include things like “et cetera,” “status quo,” and “Ave Maria.”  More than one reference is made as well to the toga party of “Animal House” fame, but this toga party is decidedly darker.

This is NOT your John Belushi type of toga party.

Dick and Sue Felton, the main characters of the story, are a happily married and seemingly happily retired couple living in the suburbs.  They have a nice house, plenty of leisure time, and also no real direction in life.  They have hobbies such as golf and tennis, but don’t seem to do anything of significance, and they have a comfortably distant relationship with their children and grandchildren, who live elsewhere and visit only once or twice a year.  They are both in good health and self-sufficient, but they also know that this will not last forever.  Dick in particular thinks a lot about end-of-life issues, and even goes so far as to find a website that tells him how much longer he may have to live.  The Feltons also spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about their will and their estate, which has been set up to cover every eventuality, including what would happen if they die together.  This turns out to be an ominous foreshadowing of the story’s events as they unfold.

Dick and Sue have a mutual friend, Sam Bailey, who also figures prominently in the events of the story.  He has recently lost his wife (in fact, the date of the toga party is the one-year anniversary of her death), and his outlook on life, always seemingly pessimistic, has gone only downhill since then.  He attends the toga party as well, and his actions there (involving a machete that Dick unthinkingly adds to his own costume) play a pivotal role in the unfolding of the story.

This is a dark and depressing story, although extremely well-written.  Barth expertly draws the reader into the lives of his characters.  The story had an additional significance for me because more than once the characters refer to the events in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina as a way of heightening the doom-and-gloom aspects of the story, and having lived through Katrina myself, this kind of thing resonates strongly with me.

In short, not a happy story at all, nor one with any kind of redemption or resolution (in fact it strikes me as overall pretty nihilistic), but a good story to read nonetheless.


  1. Toga!!

    Sounds like a strange story and your description feels a little John Cheever-ish too. I wonder if Barth was influenced by Cheever at all? Do the contributors' notes in the back of the anthology say anything on this? (Assuming the earlier years editions of The Best... anthologies include them as the current ones do)

    Coincidentally, the edition of "The Best American SSs" that I'm using this year (2012) is edited by Tom Perrotta - an author I first learned about via... Stephen King!

    1. I didn't know there WERE contributors' notes in the back of the book, so thanks for alerting me to that! However, the notes for this story were singularly uninformative. They say that this story was part of a work in progress, a collection of stories about a fictional gated community in Maryland. Turns out this was published in 2008 as "The Development." The notes also say that the story was suggested by Barth's attendance at an "amusing occasion" in Florida. That's it.

      It is a strange, Cheever-ish story, but I have been ruminating on it ever since I wrote the review, and it seems to me to have an underlying flavor of "end of the Roman Empire," which would then account for the toga party as a symbol of that. Or maybe not. :)