PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Ben Tanzer’s Fiction: A Tragicomic Exploration of Life and Pop Culture

David Masciotra

Ben Tanzer is a writer with enough heart to pump life into nearly any literary scene. He encourages the reader to use their empathy for his characters to explore their own relationships, decisions, and identity.

Sometime in the early 1990s, Geoff and Paul are having drinks with Jen and Rhoda. The conversation takes a hostile turn when Jen announces that the “best hour of television” is Knots Landing. It has Gary, “the tortured family man," Alec Baldwin as a “sociopathic priest,” and the “awesomely hot Nicollette Sheridan.” Geoff, visibly appalled, submits that Knots Landing is simply an “incredibly derivative spin-off” of the far superior Dallas. The argument shifts and shakes both ways until Jen closes by conceding that Dallas was a more influential and clever show, but that it “never had the heart of Knots Landing.” This discussion follows Paul explaining that he and Geoff bonded over mutual love of “Bob Dylan, Yoda, and John Hughes.” When Jen says that she never “got” people who like Star Wars, Geoff asks, “Is there something wrong with you?” To Geoff, this is much like Jen’s endorsement of Knots Landing — an issue of the heart.

Ben Tanzer is a writer with enough heart to pump life into nearly any literary scene. He encourages the reader to use their empathy for his characters to explore their own relationships, decisions, and identity. He wears his enormous heart on the jacket of his books, including his second novel Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine (Orange Alert Press) — in which the above scene takes place — and often transplants it directly into character interactions that use pop culture not only as fodder for clever dialogue, but also as a means to examine how people formulate their own identities, view the external world, and slip into or rise out of isolation.

Pop culture is a perfect starting point for Tanzer as it is often what gets inside and directly impacts and influences people’s lives. Tanzer’s characters carry themselves according to a politics of style that orients them towards a certain worldview and attitude. These guys smoke joints during breaks from work and discuss their problems by channeling the wisdom of Yoda, and when life gets tough, they don’t cower, but confront it with a smirk. Relationship woes, whether it is with a character’s girlfriend or distant father, are seen as inevitable parts of life’s narrative, viewed as an unfortunate absurdity of life and approached with maturity and a salvific sense of humor. Tanzer-esque interactions, much like the high moments of Jewish comedy, possess a tragicomic vision of life’s joys and difficulties.

“Pac-Man Fever,” one of the stories in his short story collection Repetition Patterns (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography), takes place in a pizza arcade in the town of Binghamton, New York. Tanzer introduces us to George, a natural loser who works at Pudgie’s Pizza, who the narrator says, “had a look of defeat about him from the first day I met him, like a guy who had hit the game-winning triple only to get tagged out because he failed to touch second base.” That tragic look of defeat is momentarily erased when he impresses all of the high school kids and patrons of Pudgie’s by setting an unbelievably high score on the newly installed, newly popular Pac-Man. When he walked towards the machine, he “was a rock star.”

The story echoes the characters in Bruce Springsteen’s song “Glory Days”: dejected down-and-outers who peaked in high school and look at their lives with melancholic nostalgia. “Pac-Man Fever” profiles a character who peaks in a pizzeria handling a greasy joystick. The level of disappointment is overwhelming but, like Springsteen, Tanzer understands the value of injecting humor into the story, thereby confirming the absurdity of the world, elevating his tragicomic vision, and acknowledging the narrow distance between comedy and catastrophe.

Ben Tanzer grew up in Binghamton and spent many hours in a place just like Pudgie’s. He now lives in Chicago and in 2007 published his first novel, Lucky Man (Manx Media), a coming of age tale that follows four friends through high school, college, drugs, sex, and suicide. Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine, a novel set in early ‘90s New York, followed in 2008 along with Repetition Patterns.

In the three years since Lucky Man Tanzer has managed to improve upon the best elements of his work while rectifying some its problems. His first novel was insightful and moving, but there were problems with the pacing. Dramatic events come in and out of the narrative like flashes of lightning, leaving the reader delightfully surprised but also slightly confused. In Most Likely and Repetition Patterns Tanzer lightly rests his foot on the brake and gives the readers enough time to enjoy the humor, explore the psychological probing, and consider personal connections to the characters’ stories. In addition to his books, he has also built what he calls a “faux media empire” with blogs, podcasts, short story writing, and obsessive social networking.

The pop cultural references and witty banter in Tanzer’s fiction is not merely some slick game intended to show off literary skills and trivia knowledge for the audience. It is an attempt to contribute to literature’s finest inquiry: What makes the individual affectionate, lonely, satisfied, and terrified?

In Most Likely Geoff is never confident that his newly found companionship with Jen will last, but he discovers that he cannot be alone. The Binghamton characters in Repetition Patterns deal with dreams deferred, relentless despair, and existential angst by conquering video games, making beautiful women laugh, and learning to love their children. Pop culture is as much as a guide as it is a friend on this unavoidable human quest.

Tanzer’s quest will continue in the form of blogs, short stories, and an upcoming novel. Anyone interested in pop culture and how it relates to the painful, yet beautiful process of self-discovery would do well to watch and read.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.