John Barth, who has won the National Book Award, the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the short story, as well as many other prizes, is often referred to as a postmodern or metafiction writer. Those terms reference Barth’s tendency to make readers aware of his narrative techniques rather than just his characters and story line. However, in Barth’s “Toga Party,” first published in 2006, the author uses a traditional narrative form to relate a beautifully somber tale.
Dick Felton and his wife, Susan, are the main characters in "Toga Party." They are a retired couple, living a comfortable life in an upscale housing development in eastern Maryland. Much of their conversation deals with growing old and the wording of their will. In the middle of the story, the Feltons are invited to a so-called toga party, for which they are required to wear a costume that resembles clothes worn at the height of the Roman Empire. There is no obvious meaning attached to the wearing of costumes, except for the fact that Dick attempts to complement his costume by wearing a belt that holsters a machete. The machete becomes an important element of the story, as a bereaved friend, in a drunken stupor, takes the garden tool and uses it as a weapon with which to commit suicide.
The theme of suicide is further entrenched when Dick and Susan return home and decide they have seen enough of life. They do not wish to grow older and more decrepit. So they do not get out of their car. Instead, they close the garage door and let the exhaust fumes rise around them.
Barth adds color throughout the story with long descriptive passages. He relates legal terminology used for the drawing up of wills, and readers even come to know the Felton’s children, even though they make no direct appearance in the story. Readers also become intimate observers of the drinks served, the games played, and the gossip told at the party.
“Toga Party” was chosen for the 2007 publication of The Best American Short Stories.