To me, Ben Tanzer’s work reads like a series of precisely delivered suckerpunches, leaving me shucked against the floor disoriented, hurting, bleeding, but wanting more, always more. And throughout the years, Tanzer’s been shadowboxing in the wings, waiting to unleash his next series of literary blows. Recently, he’s released works such as 99 Problems through CCLaP, and Cool, Not Removed through Artistically Declined Press, and again through ADP, a charming book called You Can Make Him Like You.
In You Can Make Him Like You, Tanzer introduces his protagonist Keith in a paragraph crammed with impeccable detail. We learn Keith is an insecure, yet self-aware thirty-seven-year old man, a “cock-sucker” of sorts: “Hello, my name is Keith, and I am a selfish cock-sucker. I am thirty-seven years old. I have longish black hair and what some might call an angular or Roman nose. I live in Chicago, I have a two-bedroom condo in the Gold Coast and I am generally embarrassed to admit the location. I am partial to George W. Bush, love John McCain and try to talk to my parents as little as possible…I have slept with eight people…”
In You Can Make Him Like You, Keith migrates through infidelity, marital tension, therapy, fatherhood, the everyday wear and tear of suburbia: a nag of a wife, a raging midlife crisis that has him sleeping with the intern, throwing fists in a bar, and inexplicably getting belligerent in a therapy session, a service which he claims he no longer needs. Think Rob Fleming’s neuroses from High Fidelity (without the indie music store) crossed with Patrick Bateman’s ability to attract hot women with perfect T&A in American Psycho (minus the chainsaw and brie). And yes, there are moments when Keith is a cocky cock-sucker, “I am on top of the intern,” but he also has quiet poetic moments, “…it is amazingly peaceful up here, the slight breeze, the occasional straggling geese, The Hancock Building and the Sears Tower lurking off somewhere in the distance and the leaves drifting and spinning like little commandos as they float towards the street.”
This is a story of a thirty-seven-year-old man-child wrestling with drab suburbia and reality of being a husband and father (the birth of his child that he seems to look forward to as much as a colonoscopy exam administered without drugs, in a sort of “I have to do this to maintain peace of mind”). As he narrates, “…I wander into the living room and look out onto the street below. Cars pass by. People walk their dogs. And others run. I watch the action for awhile and I am struck that it doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do, life keeps cranking along and you can either be a part of it or not, your call.”
Tensions are high, hooks throughout the book kept me engaged and left me flip-flopping between extremes, “did he or did he not sleep with that random lady? Does he truly love or subconsciously want to run like hell away from his wife, job, life in general? Is he or is he not a hardcore Republican? Now that he has a kid and has found a moment of peace, is this just the eye of his midlife crisis storm or has he wholly accepted his reality?”
You Can Make Him Like You is a coming-of-middle-age story, a departure from things like sleeping with interns and resentment toward his spouse, and acceptance of his current state, the birth of a child, finding beauty and peace in his son, Jones. I think Tanzer tries to make Keith come off as a bad guy but he’s sort of good, good that he doesn’t train wreck his life by taking off with the intern, abandoning his wife and kid, shanking someone in a bar. I suppose Keith turns into the best guy he can be, and he wants to be good, to think he is good, then in a fleeting moment he may be a douche again, but goes back to being good.
As I read this book, I had ah-ha! moments of “I never want to get married or have a kid,” to moments of, “wow, we watch ‘Intervention’ for the same selfish reasons” to extended laugh-out-loud moments: “Drugs don’t make people listen to Hootie and the Blowfish. People do…” and “I am about to answer him when Counting Crows comes on overhead and I have to pause for a moment and decide whether or not it would be preferable to drive a fork into my eye.”
Tanzer has mastered the art of introducing characters, setting scenes, and building tension in a novel made up of flash-fiction-length chapters, following all those “editor’s dream” rules without being stiff or mechanical in his voice delivery. Among writers like Brad Listi and Tony O’Neill, Tanzer’s storytelling ability is something that I covet on a daily basis. I look forward to being bludgeoned again by his future publications.
-Review by Lavinia Ludlow