In Ben Tanzer’s humble memoir, living sincerely is the more dangerous thing, and truth sneaks up on us.
Literary Nonfiction| Memoir
Dock Street Press
Seattle, Washington, USA
Cool is a slippery fish. Cool is dangerous, yet should come easy. It’s laidback, yet hyper-aware of its own capriciousness. The title of Ben Tanzer’s “sort-of” memoir, Be Cool, is a charmingly self-referential contradiction. It’s Tanzer’s own command to himself, a mantra he repeats from childhood to his own fatherhood and the deaths, births, addictions, and accidents along the way. Even as he drinks too much and lives in New York and discovers punk and does seemingly cool things, he feels deep down that he’s a fraud. That Tanzer is at once not cool and aware of his embarrassing need to be is both relatable and delightful.
The book is broken into decades — the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s — but this scheme doesn’t necessarily guide the essays in any strict sense. Instead, Tanzer weaves the different phases of his life together, skipping around, connecting this event to that. It’s meandering yet purposeful, akin to oral tradition and truer to how memories actually operate. Some of the best pieces, such as “My (Not Quite) Cancer Years” and “Drinking: A Love Story,” enhance on the fragmented style of Tanzer’s prose, with list forms and collage providing a bit of necessary structural backbone.
The fear of cliché, of deeply wanting The Normal Thing, is refreshing to read in an artist’s memoir. In “The Big One,” a young Tanzer writes a letter to a childhood crush, asking for advice on becoming a famous actor. He ultimately hears the void yawn back at him, and he subsequently “fails” to chase his acting dreams any further, no classes, no community theater, nothing:
It is the kind of failure which recognizes that I won’t do absolutely anything to get something I want so badly, which is to be a successful novelist, or maybe somehow write for television or the movies. I won’t uproot my family and move to Los Angeles or Brooklyn without a concrete opportunity being handed to me, even though there may be opportunities in those places that Chicago doesn’t possess, because it feels unfair to everyone when I can’t actually grasp what those opportunities may be.
I won’t stop working full-time to write, because then I would compromise my health insurance and retirement plans. I won’t ignore my wife or kids or disappear for days at a time just so I can get more done, because I don’t want to be that kind of husband and father. And so, even though I am insanely jealous of those who can do some or even any of this, I am forced to wrestle with knowing that this is the kind of failure that never quite allows me to take a leap of faith […] (p. 27–28)
Tanzer’s engaging voice pulls us along, and helps us reconcile the sometimes ricochet effect of wry and pun-laden self-deprecation with the tender vulnerability that this memoir excels in. In “Believe,” an adult Tanzer finds himself surrounded by
the bespectacled freaks I might have in fact been friends with if I had followed the path I was on as a kid,
i.e. his co-workers who spend their lunch breaks picking apart the plot of The X-Files. He ponders what he missed out on by not doubling down on geekiness when he was younger, choosing instead to chase girls, drink too much, and obsess over fame (He refers to himself as a “star-fucker” more than once in the book.). Now, as an adult, in that breakroom, he discovers
[…] connection, and it is like magic, and while maybe not an entirely conscious thing, it is also the start of a reconsideration of everything I have been running from. (p. 74).
Another essay, “Flight to L. A.,” tells a similar story, focusing on another common youthful pastime: the discovery of music that changes one’s life. In this case, punk. Tanzer takes a lovely perspective on the past, reverse-engineering nostalgia for things we wish we liked, and wish we had the guts to like, when we were kids. He makes a powerful case for not putting away the childish things, especially if you missed them the first time around:
What once seemed like noise was now thrilling, and inspirational.
I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted my writing to sound and look like this, lean and slamming, a punch to the head accompanied by a laugh.
If I was wrong about the Ramones, who else was I wrong about, Minor Threat for one, wow, fuck.
And if I was wrong about them, well, what else, everything maybe, and so I kept searching, and in doing so, I went way back to The Decline of Western Civilization, and okay, maybe Black Flag wasn’t, and isn’t, going to work me even now, but X, yes, that is love, and why was this?
Again there was the speed; the country vibe; the biting lyrics, the aggression — angry, but controlled, and to be honest, I might have control issues, always did, who knew, not me apparently — but there is also the fact that I’m not quite so mellow when it comes to the state of the universe. (p. 53–54).
The memoir veers into some bigger societal issues with mixed results. It’s difficult to get a handle on why the preface opens with a brief discussion on Obergefell v. Hodges and an invitation, to an apparently male reader, to marry Tanzer and live with him on a commune. An essay on basketball and O. J. Simpson at best dabbles in America’s racial consciousness, and feels too simple given our current conversations about race in this country. Like any memoir, the big stuff is best when the author sticks close to home, as Tanzer does in “Here We Are,” an exploration of toxic masculinity, posturing, and violence. Tanzer weaves a random, violent assault he experienced in New York with his own misguided threats to the man burying his father. Throughout the memoir there is a palpable willingness from Tanzer to implicate himself, to look right at the strange moment, the one that haunts him, without necessarily offering an easy answer. In “Here We Are,” when his own son becomes the victim of bullying, Tanzer finds himself giving in to the cultural narrative of toughness for young men. It’s a brief yet painful exchange:
“Why don’t you shove him back,” I finally said, “just once, hard, knock him over, it will all be done after that, no bully wants to be pushed back, promise.”
He looked stunned, bemused even.
“Are you kidding,” he responded, “that’s against the rules.”
Apparently, the fact that the other kid broke the rules first doesn’t matter, my son lives in a world where you don’t do that, even if some people clearly do.
And so he didn’t shove him, and it mostly all went away, but there are times, even still, when he will say, “My dad told me to shove someone.” (p. 341–342).
Tanzer is an engaging writer. He’s arch and sharp, tender and vulnerable by turns. By continuously characterizing himself as a person who doesn’t take risks, at least not the sexy rockstar kind he’d like to take, he creates a wonderfully open space in the memoir for exploration more than conclusion. He needs the 9–5, the stable marriage and kids. He doesn’t want his loved ones to die, and he wants to live a long and healthy life himself. When the memoir clears away the self-aware jokes and nervousness to address more serious topics — his father’s untimely death from bone cancer, Tanzer’s own brush with illness — we see the hidden contradiction of his life: living sincerely is the more dangerous thing. Caring too much is the riskier move. Like the gut-punch revelations throughout Be Cool, this truth sneaks up on us, and we have to sit with it awhile.