Friday, April 27, 2012

Review of Ben Tanzer's This American Life

This American Life, stories by Ben Tanzer. Tecumseh, Michigan: Achilles Chapbook Series/Dogzplot, 2011. Ben Tanzer is a crazy-prolific writer who’s quickly becoming a staple of the small press world. This American Life is a chapbook of short, funny stories linked with a handful of common themes and similar characters. I think of these as ‘one-off’ stories; they are funny, inventive stories that might be difficult to place in a longer collection, which is why the chapbook form is perfect for them. Tanzer begins with “Ira Glass Wants to Hit Me,” a story of a guy who isn’t a stalker but is ‘kind of a starfucker.’ The narrator is a writer who desperately wants to have something featured on the NPR show “This American Life,” hosted by Ira Glass. He gets his chance when a coworker is invited to a taping of the show, and afterward to a bar for drinks. Tanzer’s expertise is evident in the way he balances the expectations of the reader and the actions of his characters. This isn’t the obvious story in which one lone grotesque is punished for his awkwardness; many of Tanzer’s characters are quirky, self-absorbed, and often oblivious to the inappropriateness of their own actions, but also driven to achieve, at times, nearly impossible goals. It’s this juxtaposition that usually gets them into trouble. “Daddy Dearest” is, ostensibly, a letter from a father (published as an ad in Variety) answering allegations made by his son in a ‘tell-all’ book. Again, Tanzer reveals surprise after surprise, exceeding the reader’s expectations on how this story will play out. He also manages a quite humorous commentary on celebrity in America, a theme that plays out through several of these stories. Several of Tanzer’s stories take a theme or humorous situation and just run with it, like “It’s Only Rock and Roll, But We Like It,” which is, on the surface, a contract for a never-was ‘80’s rock band, or “Notes for the Honorary Oscar Speech I’ll Never Give,” whereas “Jesus Walks” has the closest to a traditional story structure. In all of these, Tanzer balances smart social commentary with humor at times bordering on surreal. Much like “Daddy Dearest,” “Hate You” takes an epistolary form, but this time, a man is addressing his significant other. These two hit me the hardest, as a reader – “Daddy Dearest” because it is just damned funny, and “Hate You” because Tanzer really moves beyond simple slapstick and raises some serious issues sometimes seen in damaged and damaging relationships. I could certainly see myself thinking – if not actually vocalizing – some of the things this narrator says. I have to admit this is the first book of Tanzer’s I’ve read (apparently, I’ve been living under a rock) and this is a great introduction to his work. He’s a deft and talented craftsman, and I’m eager to read more. Luckily, there’s lots more to read! -CL Bledsoe

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