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.





12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.


Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.


Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."


David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.


On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.


Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.


Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.


Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."


How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

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