My Father’s House, a novella by Ben Tanzer. Charlotte, North Carolina: Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2011. $9.95.
The narrator in Ben Tanzer’s novella likes to run, likes to feel the wind in his face, the pounding of his feet as he moves farther and farther away from what’s behind him. He doesn’t like to talk about his feelings or his problems, though; he’d much rather run. And that’s an issue, because he’s having some problems. His father is dying of leukemia, and as the novella follows the family through attempt after attempt at treatment, each more desperate and with less chance of success, the narrator has to run more and more to escape his burgeoning realization that there’s no real hope for saving his father’s life. He also drinks, spends long nights away from his wife, and ignores things he maybe shouldn’t. But he keeps on running.
My Father’s House is a portrait of a man falling apart emotionally as his father falls apart physically. Tanzer explores the perspective of the son who is, at times, angry at his father’s past transgressions, terrified at his father’s looming probable death, and peering forward at a future beyond this scenario. The narrator balances his anger at his father with anger at himself. His father has always been a ‘tough guy’, which means he doesn’t talk about or show his feelings, and the narrator is determined to follow suit.
This novella is about relationships, from the narrator and his wife who suggests, at one point, having a child because it might be a good donor match for the dying patriarch, not realizing the weirdness and pressure she was putting on her husband by bringing this up; to the narrator and past friends he encounters during his many trips to visit the family. The narrator is aware of his actions and motivations. He doesn’t always act accordingly, but when he missteps, at least he knows it. This is a thoroughly modern character, who’s been to therapy, who’s left behind outdated stereotypes, and, similarly, Tanzer avoids outdated and clichéd tropes in his writing; his narrator may run to escape dealing with his feelings, but this isn’t a heavy-handed exercise in symbology; instead, the narrator is fully aware of what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.
Tanzer’s prose is clean and clear. He gets to the heart of each scene, each conflict, without wasting a moment. He also avoids melodrama in what could easily be an over-the-top book in less capable hands. Tanzer also places the novella in time with cultural references to movies, especially. It’s as though he’s saying that in the looming absence of a father, this narrator looks to the culture at large. Similarly, he doesn’t look to religion or some ethnic denotation for solace; he looks to film, which is an interesting insight into the mores of this generation.
Ben Tanzer’s novella is a good read, as are all of Tanzer’s books that I’ve come across. Tanzer is not-that-slowly building a strong body of work, demonstrating again and again that he’s a writer to keep track of.