Book Review: Sarah-Jane Abate on The New York by Ben Tanzer


Ben Tanzer’s The New York Stories are both about and not about his hometown, something he references in the introduction to the collection. Tanzer renames Binghamton, New York, “Two Rivers,” a reference to the rivers that meet around the city—the Susquehanna and the Chenango. Tanzer plays with the idea of town and knowledge, the way all our hometowns differ between memory and actuality. Two Rivers is an immigrant city, a working/middle-class city, a used-to-be booming city. I grew up around Binghamton, so I was drawn to this collection, but with Tanzer’s details, readers from out of town won’t feel lost.

The New York Stories include three of Tanzer’s collections about Two Rivers. The first collection, Repetition Patterns, starts off by chronicling other characters through the eyes of the narrator(s); ultimately, by the third collection, the narrator centers on himself. In stories like “The Babysitter” and “What We Thought We Knew,” the narrator talks about typical adolescent experiences—a first kiss, a fierce crush. These are paired with unspoken secrets—the music teacher seducing a student on a class trip, infidelity, alcoholism. Tanzer sets up the neighborhood as a place of danger and experience, a place characters return to. The narrator in “The Babysitter” takes a backseat view to his own life, watching acquaintances move away from their place of trauma and then moving back to raise their families.

One of the advantages of this collection is watching the characters mature and change and—eventually—come to some sort of redemption. Tanzer’s second collection, So Different Now, continues with the same cast of narrators in the same places. The bar Thirsty’s features more prominently, as do the narrator’s wives, their ex-lovers, and a recurring cast of characters. There seem to be two recurring main narrators. The first is rather well-adjusted (considering), with a wife named Alice. They have children. He goes to therapy. His parents stayed together. The second narrator is an alcoholic, and so is his wife, who he stole from a high-school friend. His father was an alcoholic who abandoned his family and is dying of cancer. This narrator is referred to as Petey a handful of times, but otherwise there are no names. The first narrator gets a few stories; the majority of the collection is dedicated to the second narrator, who stagnates. He has been numbed by his absent father, his adolescent and current failures, his drinking, and so he watches his life fall apart. Other narrators do appear in the collection, but do not feature as prominently.

Tanzer’s third collection, After the Flood, is the swan song, the end of these narrators’ stories. The first narrator is bored but in love, experiencing suburban ennui as his wife is dying. The second narrator drinks like a fish, but with moments of redemption. When his wife cheats on him with her old fling, he still saves them both from the flood. The flood is necessary as both history of the city and a narrative method; in the flooding, “the bodies begin to rise”—both literal and metaphorical. In “Goddess,” the narrator states, “I am really not looking to be a hero. I never was.” Lines like these add a needed dimension to the stories. “Night Swimming” is one of the narrator’s triumphant moments—recently diagnosed with cancer, just like his father, he drops down into the floodwaters and swims to a dubious redemption. That’s what works in these stories—the redemptions, like in “The Runner,” are not absolute; they do not absolve past wrongs. The stories in the third collection also experiment the most, both formwise and narratively; the largest variety of characters are in this collection, rounding out the experience of the flood.

The detriment of combining these collections is the proximity of the stories. After two hundred pages, it becomes apparent that Tanzer treads the same ground again and again: the alcoholic, pool-playing father, the cheating wife, the cool older kid coaching the younger kids on getting some. Exact details and sentences are repeated from story to story; different characters perform the same actions. The first time a character braves the flood to drink or to get a drink, it’s effective. The third time is not. The overuse of plot and details reads more like trope than story. In the third collection After the Flood, the phrase “storm of the century” is repeated in twelve out of the sixteen stories, turning the flood into a joke.

The lack of clear characterization on the part of the narrator also contributes to the repetition issues. Names of narrators are given rarely, so the narrator is identified by details—wife’s name, alcoholism, father, etc. I found myself doing more detective work than reading with these stories. When Tanzer repeats details but changes the phrasing, it’s unclear whether he is reusing them for different characters, or whether it’s the same character telling the same story again. In “Just Like That”: “I think about … how my dad has always stressed that being a man means never going after another man’s woman.” The narrator goes on to state that both he and his father have done this anyway. The same advice appears in “How It Works”: “My father once told me that stealing another man’s woman was the most pussy thing a man could do.” Again, this advice is followed by the assertion that the narrator and his father did it anyway. Similar lines about stealing women appear several times throughout the collection with obviously different characters. A girl asking a boy at a party to kiss her at midnight is used twice. Due to the change in language each time the moment is referenced, it’s hard to tell if it’s the same character returning or just a reuse of ideas.

This is a technical flaw—there’s no nod to the reader that these lines have been used previously. Confusion arises more because you can’t tell who the narrator is at any given point in time. This throws the rest of the collection into doubt, and every time a detail is repeated, it draws attention to itself. Ultimately, Tanzer needs to give more faith to the reader. We will remember the father’s conversation about not stealing women, so there is no need to repeat it with almost identical language if the narrators are the same. If they are different narrators, the same detail shouldn’t be used, because the reader will pick up on it.

Like Tanzer’s characters, I’ve done laps at MacArthur Elementary (where it did flood, and where it probably does sink into the swamp every year). I’ve been to the Two Rivers Plaza, although I didn’t shoplift there. And so I see the place I know and begrudgingly love anew, from the point of view of a fifth-grade shoplifter or a mid-thirties alcoholic. Even if you aren’t from Two Rivers, you’re probably from a town like it. The collection speaks to the way all our hometowns affect us, whether we leave or not. The way we see the world based on an immigrant city with absent fathers and video arcades, a high-school hangout bar, closed-down pizza shops. There’s a lot in the collection to recognize and to relate with. As Tanzer says in his introduction: he, and the characters, and indeed everyone in Binghamton, are still “desperate, longing, fighting.” To do something more, to find happiness, to find themselves—something every reader can relate to, whether they are from Two Rivers or not.

The New York Stories, by Ben Tanzer. Chicago, Illinois: CCLaP Publishing, May 2015.  224 pages. $17.99, paper.

Sarah-Jane Abate lives in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, but she spent most of her childhood and adolescence hanging around New York’s Southern Tier. Her work has previously appeared in Cheat River Review.

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