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

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.