Ben Tanzer is a machine when it comes to putting out novels, novellas, chapbooks, and short story collections, my favorites being 99 Problems, a chapbook released through the CCLaP, and his novel You Can Make Him Like You, released through Artistically Declined Press. Recently, CCLaP released another chapbook of Tanzer’s shorts called So Different Now, which consists of nine micro short stories about man-boys who’ve yet to mature (do any of us?). Central themes include reflections of childhood bullies and lost loves, and current dissatisfaction with marriage and life in suburbia. And a Tanzer collection wouldn’t be complete without his trademark theme of infidelity, or rationalizing the urge to cheat.
Each story ends with a punch to the stomach (or face or kidney) in the form of a twist or blatant shock. I read this collection from cover to cover with the takeaway message that life sucks sometimes. Growing up sucks. Suburbia sucks. Marriage can suck.
This may sound strange, but Tanzer is amazing at writing the tempted-to-cheat male mind. His narrators’ thoughts flow naturally, and the internalized cognitive dissonance is well-played. There are always plenty excuses and more excuses about why the protagonist feels the need to cheat or stray or maintain a wandering eye. Take this line from A Single Bound, where our subject tries to rationalize his cheating thoughts with something as arbitrary as Spiderman, speaking through a third-person POV: “He is a superhero at work, but the rest of the time he is just a regular guy trying to deal with people’s expectations of him, his wife included. It’s not that his wife doesn’t appreciate him. It’s just that his wife doesn’t appreciate him like the intern does. The intern has no expectations at all, and frankly it’s refreshing.”
There was a laugh-out-loud moment for me in Cool, Not Removed along the similar topic: “Now, does he feel like being married is like being in jail? No, of course not, not for the most part anyway. There are moments, though. Does he get to do whatever he wants whenever he wants? No, not at all. Does he care? Not really. But is that kind of like being in prison? Sure it is, a little.”
Every story left me feeling intense emotions about the protagonist or his situation, weather it was victory, defeat, or a just plain, that totally sucks, and that’s what Tanzer does. He can evoke an intense reaction in his reader in a mere flash fiction piece. All the characters yanked at my heart strings in one form or another, I felt sympathy for them no matter how confused or fallen they were.
So Different Now reflects on the protagonist’s past, growing up terrorized by the neighborhood bully only to find out twenty-five years later, that the bully is dating one of his childhood sweethearts, if one could call her that. In Stevey, the kid doling out sex and dating wisdom brings his friends home to a father who brags about how he cheated on his wife, the narrator ending the story with, “Maybe we found ourselves resenting the fact that [Stevey] wasn’t in control all the time, that he was flawed, and that we hated ourselves for trusting him so much when he struggled just like everyone else did.”
My only criticism is that I wish the collection was longer, I think there was still so much left Tanzer could have said in his chapbook, there was some missing element that I kept searching for. Regardless, I’ve always adored Tanzer’s writing style, and this collection, So Different Now, has taken a place at the top of my list. Get a copy now over at CCLaP. It may be short, but it’ll take a swing at your thoughts on life and leave a lasting red mark.
–Review by Lavinia Ludlow