Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, 224 pages, paperback, $14.99
The beauty of Ben Tanzer’s short stories is that they contain all the great elements that make short fiction a pleasure to read: nice pacing, relatable and believable characters, solid dialogue, and a strange, ineffable quality that makes them linger in the heart and brain long after the last page has been turned. In The New York Stories, Tanzer takes his toolbox and uses everything in it to explore love, youth, growing up, pain, parenthood, and even the way natural catastrophes affect us. The result is a collection that beautifully displays a very talented author at the top of his game while exploring what it means to be human with equal doses of tenderness and brutal honesty.
The New York Stories is actually three books in one. Tanzer created the fictional town of Two Rivers, New York, back in 2006 and began to write the narratives of its inhabitants back then. The effort produced Repetition Patterns (2008), So Different Now (2011), and After the Flood (2014). Now, all 33 stories have been put together, and they read as if they we written as a novel instead of vignettes. These stories are about everyday people living regular lives in a small town, and even though that sounds unexciting, the way the author managed to reconstruct reality in a fictional microcosm and imbue his cast of characters with unique personalities makes for a book that demands to be read.
Tanzer does many things right, but there are two elements of this trifecta that make it a book worth shining a spotlight on while screaming and pointing to it. The first is that, short as they are, the narratives here feel complete. Each story has a beginning, middle, and end, but they also fit within a much larger continuum, interlock with other tales, and give the impression that entire lives have been crammed into a few pages. In fact, the author sometimes offers up a few entire lives in a single paragraph:
“And the fact that Ted was essentially let off on juvenile probation; the fact that Mr. Elmo and his wife quietly moved away a few weeks later; the fact that Ted’s father permanently left the country the year after that; the fact that Lacey did not get into Williams after all; none of that seemed to mean all that much when everything was said and done. What we thought we knew wasn’t very important, because the fact was that we didn’t know shit, and you never do.”
The second most impressive aspect of The New York Stories is that, while most collection struggle to find cohesive elements, everything from the geography and the people to the truth-dripping tone and the overall sense of chronological order all work as cohesive elements in this book. That Tanzer worked on these stories for almost a decade makes a lot of sense when the reader takes the time to appreciate the interconnectivity of the narratives and the recurring themes. Rain, loss, family, Thirsty’s and even Yuengling are all components of a larger world, and their recurrence helps the reader enter Two Rivers quickly and then have a really hard time leaving.
The New York Stories is a book about growing up and the inevitability of the passage of time. It’s also about those life-changing events that make your knees weak and stay with you forever. Tanzer is easily one of the most candid authors in contemporary fiction and nonfiction, and this collection stands as a testament to the power of his voice and his knack for distilling feelings from the real world and injecting them into the page.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Gutmouth, Hungry Darkness, and a few other things no one will ever read. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.