By Ben Tanzer
Dock Street Press, 2016
373 pages, $18.95
Reviewed by Cija Jefferson
Welcome to Ben Tanzer’s compound, a magical place where there is, “…art, surfing, tacos and drinking, low slung stucco bungalows or ranch houses in Southern California…” Come through and stay if you like. I think you will. Know that Tanzer’s open about what’s important: family and a daily need to run and write. He’s also got a soft spot for Los Angeles, a place where he imagines casting off the shackles of responsible adulthood, for a more bohemian artist’s life. Then there are the many allusions to the story of Icarus—the boy who flew too close to the sun. His cards are face up. Tanzer asks if that’s cool and then opens the door to invite us in. All are welcome.
Tanzer’s Be Cool is divided amongst three decades: the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000-present. The book’s subtitle is literally, a memoir (sort of) and while it feels a bit like genre clarification, it also hints at Tanzer’s sense of humor. It reads as a collection of personal essays that mostly fit together with a central theme tied to a narrative arc. Many of the stories include the personal reflection typical of memoir. It’s refreshing to read a collection that—although grouped by decade—is not arranged in a linear style culminating in an inevitable conclusion.
The book begins with 12-year-old Tanzer running through his day, feet flying, breath even. He deftly navigates what it’s like to be a kid, in all of its angst and vivid imagination. These were the middle school years where being cool was all about being normal and imagining oneself on the hallowed pages of Tiger Beat. These stories come to life. It’s like I’m turning the pages of one of those hefty photo albums grandmothers always seem to have, full of Polaroids and faded Kodak prints. There are images of a boy on a track field, at the beach, at a bullfight in Mexico City, and lounging on his bed reading The Basketball Diaries. It’s the 1980s, his coming of age years before the grittier post-college days of fending for himself.
In the subsequent decades the stories shift from the breathless haze of youth to the sudden realization of adulthood and the anxiety that accompanies that discovery. “…I try to figure out when and how we became pseudo, wanna-be, IKEA-buying, Banana Republic wearing, Kamikaze drinking yuppie scum.” Tanzer grapples with being cool—in reference to his childhood dream to be well known and his adult dream to live an artist’s life on his own terms. This is a familiar struggle, and one realized well through Tanzer’s prose—the tug-of-war between imagining freedom from pedestrian duty and wondering if we are settling.
At times it feels as if Be Cool also serves as admonishment; a reminder that life is fragile and fleeting. Has Tanzer reached the epic status he gave so much weight to in those Tiger Beat pages? No, but that doesn’t matter, what he’s doing is exploring and living and experiencing life in all of its joy and gutter glory. It isn’t always pretty, but that’s not the point, he’s not just surviving.
My favorite essay in the book is “Drinking: A Love Story.” In the first couple of lines I feel as though I am there. “Like so many nights, it begins with a drink. And like so many others it ends on a cold bathroom floor, half-dressed, the rank smell of vomit in the air.” This scene is so full of self-implication that I connect. I found myself reliving similar experiences and turning pages nodding in affirmation. To think that a chapter that began with this scene can wrap with one of the most beautiful moments in the book is a tall order, but Tanzer delivers. This essay also serves as a micro-memoir fully exploring the central theme of the book. He is at multiple crossroads in his life with his girlfriend, location, and career. Growth strikes an anxious chord within.
Be Cool is an exploration of life. Tanzer daydreams about a desire for a different kind of existence, a creative life “…is what I want going forward—more art, more beach, more punk, and less worry about structure and everything being taken care of.” He reveals no hint of dissatisfaction; rather, he shows a wistfulness for a life not rigid with responsibility, where he doesn’t need a 9-5 and can live as the writer he is.
Through humorous, sometimes meandering, and always-candid storytelling, Tanzer has invited us in to see him soar as a normal guy—husband, father and writer, and to witness those lows inevitable to life—freak accidents, health scares and death. In letting us witness his journey, Tanzer invites us all to see a bit of ourselves.