It’s not Ben Tanzer’s fault, but after three paragraphs into his novella My Father’s House, it dawned on me that I’ve been reading a lot of cancer lately: Damascus by John Mohr, A Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, the science section of every major newspaper, and each time I’ve had to put them down, on hold maybe, even still with Eggers’ masterpiece, because the topic of cancer induces a lot of stress. Chalk it up to early impressions in childhood, but cancer is a personal phobia, which made it extraordinarily difficult to read many of Tanzer’s passages, “maybe they will wheel us into some cold and antiseptic hospital room and put tubes into our lower back and then very slowly draw the bone marrow that could very well save my dad’s life. That would be something wouldn’t it? Sure it would, though this is assuming of course that he doesn’t die on the operating table, that his body doesn’t then reject the transplant or that some opportunistic infection doesn’t wreak havoc on his now compromised immune system.”
I know Tanzer’s work best in seriocomic form, themes usually include therapy sessions, running, a distant wife, cheating on that distant wife, beating the goo out of some guy’s face (even if it is imagined), but My Father’s House was a march in a different direction, packed with the dismal, the ugly, the realities of terminal illness. For me, it was like seeing my favorite comical movie star taking on a serious role, or vice versa. The vice versa tends to be a lot more lighthearted, seeing Christopher Walken on SNL is always a treat. But this wasn’t the vice versa, this was Tanzer exploring the complexities of a relationship, at times the lack thereof, between a grown man, his father, and his father’s deathbed.
The petite chapters were so symmetrically crafted that they could stand alone as flashes, one of Tanzer’s many talents. Most focus on the human experience, taking the reader through what it’s like to undergo overwhelming hopelessness: “It’s like once I allow myself to think about the possibility of his death all sorts of roads open up…He told me today that it isn’t his time yet, that he has things to do. I know that, and want to believe it, but this is bad, and who knows what’s going to happen. Also, let’s be honest, I can do other things, go to work, go for a run or watch the Knicks, but this is all I think about. In fact, I can’t even remember a time when this wasn’t our reality, and this is despite the fact that we’ve only been in this place for a week or so.”
I kept searching for some lightness in this book, and maybe I found it in the drop of some guy’s pants and then an Entenmann’s cake, but that was over in an instant, and then it leapt back into Debbie Downer: “Killing time, I never realized how terrible that phrase sounds when you use it at the wrong time, like when someone is actually dying.” I think the “Debbie Downer” SNL reference is appropriate, in fact, here is a quote from the book: “The show [SNL] is not funny anymore, but I watch it because my dad liked to watch it…because my dad will likely be dead sooner than later and I need to hold onto whatever I have of him.”
The writing is incredible, no surprise for a writer like Tanzer, and his storytelling ability has always been incomparable, but the incessant mention of grief, dying, wasting away, and the sheer hopelessness of his protagonist’s tortured soul overtook me like Mavericks’ surf. This book read more like a funeral filled with regretful and resentful eulogies, not necessarily one that celebrated life. Definitely worth checking out, just don’t start reading it on the way to a wedding or your kid’s birthday party.
– Review by Lavinia Ludlow