I AM by Ben Tanzer

reviewed by Gabino Iglesias | Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

"I Am" by Ben Tanzer Artistically Declined Press, 100 pages, paperback, $9.00

“And please, please don’t tell me it’s about that beat. Because if it is, y’all can go fuck yourselves and your mothers. It is not the same beat and it never was. You gotta listen more closely and shit. There’s a little bitty change there. Their’s is all ding ding da da ding ding and mine’s goes ding ding da da ding ding ding.”

If the above paragraph sounds familiar, you’re right: it’s a slightly fictionalized version of Mr. Rob Van Winkle’s explanation of how the bass line of his hit single “Ice Ice Baby” is entirely different from that of David Bowie/Queen’s “Under Pressure.” You know, and extra ding. It was a joke more than two decades ago and it’s a joke now. However, in the hands of author Ben Tanzer, Vanilla Ice’s laughable claim is just one of the tasty morsels of pop culture absurdity that come together to create I Am, a collection of short stories that cuts to the marrow of pop culture with contagious glee and plenty of wit.

Many authors take oblique shots at pop culture, but Tanzer does something unique: he gets down and dirty with some iconic figures and doesn’t let the lampooning get in the way of serious writing and the fact that this collection is also an homage to those celebrities. If you remember him or her, they’re here: Vanilla Ice, Dr. Phil, Richard Simmons, George H.W. Bush, Carl Lewis, Corey Feldman, Molly Ivins, Evel Knievel, Darth Vader — they’re all part of I Am, and they all bring something different to the book.

While humor helps make I Am a great read, what truly makes it shine is that it combines hilarity with sadness and delivers all of it using a frenetic prose that takes on a variety of rhythms in order to adjust itself to the voice of every story. For example, “Ding,” the opening tale, has Vanilla Ice waxing poetically about race, music, and his career. It’s a fun, quick narrative that leaves you wanting more. However, a story titled “Richard Simmons” is an entirely different animal. Although the thought of Simmons jumping around with his emblematic shorts and energy is enough to make anyone smile, the story is unexpectedly depressing and takes a trip to the darkest corners of Simmons’ memories to expose a man whose suffering eventually became a desire to help others:

“Who else understands not just the profound suffering that endlessly ripples across a cruel world we all know much too well, but the promise & beauty that very same world can hold for those who know how to obtain it? No one, there is no one else & Richard Simmons knows this as surely as he knows anything. Richard Simmons is love & Richard Simmons is here to you. You are Richard Simmons.”

I Am is an entertaining and diverse look at celebrities everyone knows and some that will strike some readers as very obscure. It’s also makes a meaningful statement about the people behind the known faces and about the histories, thoughts, and emotions that make them human. Forget about roundabout gossip, Tanzer has eviscerated pop culture and turned its guts into short stories that, ironically, help it stay alive.

Gabino Iglesias is writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Gutmouth and a few other things no one will ever read. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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