The copiously productive and under-ground-indie-writer-extradordinaire, Ben Tanzer, is now out with a story collection whose composition has spanned nine-years and three volumes, all collected here in The New York Stories.
For fans of Tanzer, his productivity is a boon because a fan never has to wait long for a new tome to come along. This assured and masterful collection of stories proves that there is as of yet no waning of quality or seeming end to his effortless invention and immaculate prose.
The Tanzer style evolves from the pithy speech and the dialogic to-and-fro of David Mamet’s early plays. If the 1986 movie classic, About Last Night, enacts a cinematic variation on Mamet’s theatrical production, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, then Tanzer’s opus enacts prose variations on About Last Night.
In other words, in so far as About Last Night softens and laughs up the hard edge of Mamet so too does Tanzer take his cue and fill in comic color around the dark and mean parameters of Mamet’s vision. Both writers, Tanzer and early Mamet, are distinctly urban, Gold Coast Chicago, male-centric and minimalistic. But in my view Tanzer’s take is more generous and open than Mamet’s. While Mamet is ultimately a tragic dramatist, Tanzer’s worldview is ultimately comic and, should I say, more loving and, yes, there is tragedy and hurt here as well.
Tanzer writes short paragraphs, short chapters, and short-streamlined books that speed the reader along. His subject is the contemporary dude and he’s a particularly eloquent writer on dadhood, sonhood, fatherhood, husbandhood, boyfriendhood, and illicit-sexual-relationship-with-my-buddy’s-wife-hood.
Tanzer’s work grapples with these complex questions about everyday relationships. More than that, he wonders: What does it mean to be a man working in the nexus of a dwindling economy? How do men cope with repetition, redundancy, an iterative daily life? How do they deal with the furtive sense that they may no longer be needed or wanted? How do they keep on caring and holding onto family that seems ever on the cusp of fraying into bits?
Then there are these questions: What can a man say today that was taboo in the mouths of our fathers? How do our father’s taboos continue to haunt us? How do men who are fathers deal with lust? With sex? With sexual displacement—and in some prophetic work, like his brilliantly dystopic, Orphan’s, he deals even with the possibility of men getting phased out sexually by replacer robots.
There is running in Tanzer’s work… always running—the lone-wolf-runner dude who is always escaping into the urban night trying to pick up the signals that only night and running conjoined can deliver—and in his pared prose Tanzer writes down what those signals are: gnomic grafitti symbols on lamp-post and subway wall; waves crashing against the concrete retainer walls that keep Lake Michigan at bay, and the deeper threnody of thought that races through the runner’s mind as he tries to connect his thinking to home and writing.
New York Stories continues variations on all these themes. It harkens as ever to its David Mamet source. Tanzer also draws inspiration from the scrappy working class down-and-out minimalism of Raymond Carver and the unheralded but brilliant contemporary author, Dave Newman, who also draws inspiration from Raymond Carver but updates the working class model to a contemporary vision that matches our own post-economic-collapse shrunken middle class economy–where the spread of economic hurt bleeds into downsized white-collar workers and college professors who need to work multiple jobs just to keep their kid’s soccer lessons paid for.
In The New York Stories, Tanzer harnesses all of these influences to recreate a vibrant portrait of a decaying village of broken and/or of breaking lives, following the fortunes of a clan friends and families who all live on the floodable margins of the Susquehanna River.
It is a collection that features friends who like to gather together in kitchens, barbecue pits, and the local Thirsty’s Tap to share memories, gab about the day-to-day goings-on, to harbor lust and share loss, to expiate sins and to sin, to give, to take, to drink & to fuck, to live, to die, happily or unhappily ever after. For instance, there is this from “The Babysitter”:
. Amy was the first girl in the neighborhood to get breasts, and she wasn’t bad-looking either—she had olive-colored skin, this kinky sort of sun-bleached blonde corkscrew hair, and great dark eyebrows. But it was definitely her boobs that drew your attention. They were soft and round and large, like Nerf basketballs, and completely awesome. We all wanted to see them, of course, but no one wanted to see them more than my friend Billy. He talked about them all the time. “Hey, man,” he’d say. “Did you see Amy today?”
. “Yeah,” I’d say. “Why?”
. “Did you see what she was wearing?”
. “Yeah. I think they call them t-shirts.”
. “Right, but that’s a pretty tight t-shirt, isn’t it? Did you see her boobs?”
. “Yes, I did, and they’re very nice, just like when you asked about them yesterday.”
. “Dude, I’ve got to see them. I’m dying here.”
There is a storm that spans sixteen stories of the collection and a flood of epic proportion that washes everything away–biblical in scope but prosaic down to the baseball bat that the security guard holds while guarding his parking lot against the rising tide and all that it brings:
I take up my spot in the parking lot, bat in lap, and I am soaked to the bone from the start. It turns out that customers do come and go, having made the decision to eschew food for drink and riding out the day. Too wet to stand, and too cold to truly care, I leave the door open and let them pay by the honor system, leaving the correct amount of the counter.
I would love tell you of the flood stories because there is biblical meaning there and local history and lore and Thirsty’s is the beating social heart of this book, but I’d rather focus on a lovely powerful story, “What We Thought We Knew,” which is emblematic of the entire collection both in terms of theme and quality.
It is the story of a non-descript woman, Lacey Chalmers, who no one ever dated because people didn’t ever really ask her on dates. She had slumped posture, she came from a broken family. She wasn’t cute but she wasn’t not-cute, and then we are told that “Lacey had gone off in different directions at some point; you weren’t sure why, but you knew that Lacey was Lacey, that she wasn’t that cool, so you knew it had something to do with that even if you didn’t exactly want to admit to it.”
We discover that in fact Lacey had two admirers. The first is the narrator’s close friend, Ted, who himself comes from a mixed up family where the father insists on kissing all the boys who come for sleepovers.
Ted knows something about Lacey–a truth about her that know one else knows–and he knows as a matter of fact that he and Lacey will one day tie the knot only that day never seems to come.
At a party, the narrator kisses Lacey at midnight to signal the occasion of her birthday. It’s unknown but possibly suspected that this is her first kiss. And the narrator describes the moment beautifully:
. I leaned in towards her and she responded in kind. Her lips were warm, electric, like fresh fruit. We started to kiss, slowly, softly, then faster, and harder. I pushed into her and she moved with me. I buried my hands in her hair and she grabbed my neck, pulling me closer to her, and then closer still. I paused, panicked by the intensity. I pulled back. She smiled.
. “Thank you,” she said, walking away.
. And that was the moment I became a lifelong admirer of Lacey, though always from afar, too scared to know what to do about it.”
It turns out there was another unknown admirer of Lacey and in fact this hadn’t been her first kiss. There was the music teacher “who was youngish and desperate to be hip, with his longish prog-rock hair and tasteful little beard.” He leered at the girls in the school where he worked like “a panhandler staring through the window of a restaurant at a hot, open-faced turkey sandwich.”
One night, on a school trip, the music teacher seduces Lacey by telling her a sad story and while he has sex with her, Ted stands outside the door listening to everything that is going on.
The impact of this transgression on Lacey and Ted is life shattering. Tanzer holds all the tension and hurt in a single brilliant paragraph that shows both the invisible transgression and the ruinous devastation that transgression imparts:
And the fact that Ted was essentially let off on juvenile probation; the fact that Mr. Elmo and his wife quietly moved away a few weeks later; the fact that Ted’s father permanently left the country the year after that; the fact that Lacey did not get into Williams after all; none of that seemed to mean all that much when everything was said and done. What we thought we knew wasn’t very important, because the fact was that we didn’t know shit, and you never do.
Tanzer grew up in Binghamton, New York, and the village in The New York Stories is modeled on Binghamton. Though Tanzer has lived most of his adult life in Chicago, he writes in the introduction that Binghamton is what formed him as a writer:
It is where I survived elementary school and high school, and got into fights, where I learned to ride a bicycle and drive, started drinking and running and reading, had sex for the first time, poorly, fell in love, endlessly, experienced rejection, shattered femurs, amputated fingers, and broken hearts. And that is all real, imprinted on my brain, and like the Seventies and Eighties, a filter for everything that came after it and is yet to come.
Tanzer’s book is an eloquent recreation of that emotional and visual impress–and it is a keen work of literary art worthy of your attention.
Another thought just occurred to me and it’s something I’ve been wanting to say for a long time: Tanzer is the inverse and antidote to the nordic-literary-heart-throb of endless verbosity, Karl Ove Knausgaard. If you ain’t got time for Knausgaard but want to know what Knausgaard knows, read Tanzer instead. The New York Stories is a good place to start.
Joseph G. Peterson is the author of the novels Beautiful Piece, Elevator Man, and Gideon’s Confession. He has also written a book-length poem, Inside the Whale, and most recently a short-story collection, Twilight of the Idiots. His work has been characterized as ‘Loser’ fiction because it often deals with people who have found themselves on the other side of the American Dream. He grew up in Chicago where he works in publishing and lives with his wife and two daughters.