Review of Ben Tanzer’s Sex and Death

Sex and Death
Ben Tanzer. Sunnyoutside Press, $13 paperback (72p) ISBN: 9781934513507

            I’ve been a fan of Ben Tanzer’s short fiction ever since I read his pop-culture guide to parenting and fatherhood, Lost in Space, released in 2014. With his latest collection, Sex and Death, a pocket-sized collection of flash and short fiction ruminations on, you guessed it, sex and death, among other modern problems, I was expecting more of the same sharp witticism and deadpan delivery that posited why having Darth Vader for a dad could create father-son issues. The comic element is certainly present in Sex and Death, but there is a ringing poignancy in this nine-story collection that allows Tanzer’s breadth and depth as a cultural commentator to shine in ways that I hadn’t seen before. Without sacrificing any of the up-to-the-moment references and raw humor, Sex and Death offers uncensored blips of human consciousness that speak more deeply to the human condition. It’s a tightrope act that Ben Tanzer pulls off effortlessly.
            The stories are linked most obviously by their commentaries and reflections on sex. From awkward first times, to awkward first talks, from affairs to fantasies to Facebook, each story centers on some aspect of our usually earnest, but often fumbling, attempts to navigate the sexual landscape. More than the obvious themes, however, the stories fall seamlessly upon one another by Tanzer’s ever-present second person narration, bringing the reader right into the story. In the opening of “He’s Gone,” Tanzer demands that we are the woman of the story about to confront her dead husband’s mistress:

“It starts off as a fantasy. You are drinking your coffee. And you think you will confront her… You will be civil, classy, you will be an adult.”

            There is no space for the reader to criticize the foibles of the character. Tanzer insists that you are the character. You have crabs. You are a teenage boy caught up in a Bon Jovi fueled sex-mania. You are reconnecting with your high school boyfriend over the internet. The distance is erased, which makes for sometimes laughable, sometimes uncomfortable, but always absorbing reading.
            Each story, too, has a nugget of truth to it and often this gem is in the form of a beautiful gut-punch when you least expect it. Although spot-on lines such as the summing up of Facebook as “little hearts and hyperlinks everywhere” in “Taking Flight” made me smile (and think, God, how perfect a description), others took my breath away. The teenage quest story with a singular focus on, what else, getting some, “Dead or Alive” suddenly drops a line like this and I am reminded that none of these stories are trite:

“…and her skin, her fucking amazing skin is glowing so intensely I need to avert my eyes or risk going blind. She’s sitting in the shadows and she is popping with energy so raw that it is like no one I have ever been around.”

Seemingly out of nowhere, the story, which appeared to be concerned only with feathered hair, keg parties and the “ravenous pursuit of pussy,”gives a description of teenage love/lust that is at once so singular and yet so universal. It takes the story to an entirely new level. One of sex and death, yes, but also of using language to convey raw, honest, human emotion in a way that is both startling and refreshing.
            Ben Tanzer is a writer on a demon-pace. Between Lost in Space and Sex and Death, I haven’t even mentioned The New York Stories which just hit shelves a few months ago and a list of collections and contributions stretching far back and, I’m sure, already far into the future. If Sex and Death is any indication of the direction Tanzer is headed in, I think his readers are going to be in for some welcome, noteworthy surprises. (January 2016)

Purchase Sex and Death HERE.

Reviewer bio: Steph Post is the author of the debut novel A Tree Born Crooked. Her short fiction has most recently appeared in Haunted Waters: From the Depths, The Round-Up and Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics. She currently lives, writes and teaches writing in St. Petersburg, Florida.