Be Cool by Ben Tanzer
Publisher: Dock Street Press
Released: Feb 2017
Reviewed by Leland Cheuk
There’s a line in The Flaming Lips song “Fight Test” from their seminal album “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots” that goes:
I thought I was smart
I thought I was right
I thought it better not to fight
I thought there was a virtue in always being cool
There cannot be a better set of lyrics to describe the premise of Ben Tanzer’s new “memoir (sort of)” Be Cool.
Tanzer’s writing persona of the middle-aged, white, do-gooding dad is fully formed. After covering similar ground in his 2014 book of essays on fatherhood entitled Lost in Space, in Be Cool, Tanzer is older, wiser and funnier, and the book as a whole coheres in a way that indicates that Tanzer is at the top of his game.
The essays are arranged chronologically by decade, which gives the memoir a simulation of a plot—at least, as much of a plot as one can impose on the picaresque of real life. Each essay contains the theme of Tanzer trying to be cool, though it’s threaded into the writing in subtle, often non-explicit ways. In “The Big One,” he writes about his ‘tween boy crush on Parker Stevenson (Shaun Cassidy in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries). Tanzer finds a way to connect the act of writing Stevenson a fan letter to the compromises he has to make in middle age as a father and husband with his own literary ambitions.
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 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.
I’m not even sure anymore that I really sent that letter to Parker Stevenson, but I want it to be true, because I want, need, to believe that I took a chance, a restrained chance maybe, but still one where I was willing to at least risk a different kind of failure, that of being rejected.
Should Tanzer the Writer fight for his right to chase his loftiest artistic aspirations, even if it means that his family will become less stable? It’s an age-old question that isn’t asked often enough. Tanzer comes back to this idea of the road not taken repeatedly as his essays change settings from San Francisco to New York to Los Angeles to Chicago, where he now lives. At the end of these roads not taken, there are imaginary pots of gold—cooler, larger, hypothetical successes that will become less and less possible as he ages.
The inherent sadness in these essays gives Tanzer’s sense of humor its weight. In “Mexico City Blues,” Tanzer takes an ill-fated trip in the 80s as a teen with his brother to the capital of our southern neighbor, only to discover the luxury that is clean water.
But it is our third night in Mexico, a country where everyone actively discourages one from drinking the water that we make a grave mistake—we all decide to order shrimp scampi.
As you might imagine, bathroom adventures ensue and another attempt to be cool and travel to a place that has become, in recent years, a hip destination, goes awry. Tanzer has a gift for visceral descriptions. In “Drinking: A Love Story,” he’s walking in New York City when a random homeless man assaults him, a frightening incident that could have ended worse.
His next punch catches me on the tip of my nose. I see little dots and swirls of color, purple mainly. I’m stunned, frozen in place. I have become a statue…There is a final blow, broken glasses and an eyebrow split neatly in two.
The vast majority of the 30 essays focus on Tanzer’s adventures as a younger man living in various “cool” cities. Scarce time is given to the do-gooding part of Tanzer’s life, namely his career in social work. He volunteered at Gay Men’s Health Clinic, facilitating HIV/AIDS support groups. He worked with homeless individuals with serious mental illness, as well as Prevent Child Abuse America. Clearly, Tanzer is a person who believes in selfless good works. I wished for a few more essays on why Tanzer chose that important line of work. Despite that noticeable gap in the narrative, on the whole, Be Cool is a smart, entertaining tour of a middle-aged everyman’s lifelong belief in the virtues of always being cool.
Four of five stars.
Leland Cheuk is the author of the novel THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG (CCLaP Publishing, 2015) and the story collection LETTERS FROM DINOSAURS (Thought Catalog Press, 2016). He has been awarded fellowships and artist residencies including ones from the MacDowell Colony and Djerassi Resident Artists Program, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Salon, The Rumpus, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, [PANK] Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.