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The New York Stories

Fiction  |  Three Volumes in One Collection
224 pages
5 ½” x 8 ½” Trade Paperback
ISBN 978-1-939987-33-4
First Edition
Review Copy: Paperback ARC
Chicago Center for Literature and Photography
Chicago, Illinois
Available HERE
Review by Al Kratz

At an AWP Offsite Event sponsored by Alternating Current and Lockjaw Magazine, I was given two books to read and review: Sara Lippmann’s Doll Palace and Ben Tanzer’s The New York Stories. They are both excellent demonstrations of the art of the short story and strong arguments that the form is alive and well. In my review of Doll Palace, I suggested that Lippmann’s themes were similar to Richard Yates. Now, a parallel idea for Tanzer would be his similarity to Raymond Carver. I don’t think it’s too big of a stretch to argue that in many ways Tanzer and Lippmann often meet or exceed the high standards set by their influences.

The New York Stories is a collection of collections, three volumes in one: Repetition Patterns from 2008, So Different Now from 2011, and After the Flood from 2014. These volumes are another fine example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. It’s hard for me to imagine any of the volumes as stand-alone because they are so integrated and complete such a deep arc. Each volume is also arguably great examples of the novella-in-flash form defined and sampled in Rose Metal Press’s My Very End of the Universe. Tanzer’s full collection gets a little more space to complete its task than the narrow focus of a novella, but it’s a good representation of the strength of connected short pieces and the large impact that brevity can produce.

The stories take place in a fictional upstate New York town called Two Rivers and center around a small group of common characters and families. They look at realistic issues, such as coming of age, marital infidelity, alcohol abuse, and parenting, from all angles. Some of the stories are “sneaky” dark, where the characters are doing normal day-to-day things, but events turn more serious when adults have inappropriate contact with minors or find out one of their friends has been physically abusive to his girlfriend.

The timeline of the collection follows the aging of the children from volume to volume. These kids grow up with dysfunctional parents and, in the second volume, become dysfunctional themselves. By the third volume, just before all the pieces of their lives fall, a flood comes into Two Rivers that threatens to destroy anything they have left. During the early parts of the second volume, this reader started to feel like an experienced Two Rivers observer. I “got” these people. I felt Tanzer gain momentum with this world. By the third volume, when the rains come down, all bets are off. The stakes in their personal lives are as extreme as the weather. He doesn’t just put his characters up a tree and throw a few rocks at them—these trees are underwater. These trees lose their roots. These rocks are mountain-sized. These pages are intense.

This part of the book contains some wonderful Noah’s Ark imagery. Little by little, quick and minimally, they are introduced in the various flood stories:

Why are animals crossing the road two at a time though? I do not know, but they are, heading up the mountain to whatever something awaits them there.
(“Barely Breathing,” p. 139)

As I kneel there, the hammer slipping with every strike of a nail, two deer, a buck and a doe, walk out of the woods on the outskirts of the cemetery. They are followed by two skunks, and then a pair of raccoons, all of whom dutifully line up a small distance from the platform. I don’t make eye contact with them or treat their presence as anything but normal.
(“Vision,” p. 171).

Consistent with the almost sadistic (in a good, positive literary context, of course) treatment of his characters I mentioned above, Noah is just a tease. Safety (redemption?) remains an illusion. Just out of reach. Dreamy. Impossible. There will be no ark built in Two Rivers. These guys are on their own and good luck.

There is a unique dynamic, particularly in the first volume, where the stories are often told in first-person by a specific Two Rivers resident; yet, this narrator has omnipotent knowledge of the other characters’ experiences and points of view. I don’t believe this is sloppy writing or anything for the POV Police to point out in a workshop. I think this was serving specific roles within the themes Tanzer wanted to explore. There is a shared story that happens with small neighborhoods, sometimes spread through the rumor mill and other times spread through small-town intimacy, proximity. We end up knowing more of the characters’ stories than maybe we should. Or at least we think we know them. This construct even becomes an explicit theme in a story called, “What We Thought We Knew,” which takes the reader through events with a student and a teacher. As the story evolves, the strength of the rumor mill is evaluated. In the end:

What we thought we knew wasn’t very important, because the fact was that we didn’t know shit, and you never do.
(p. 32).

In this case, the narrator could be viewed as unreliable. Not everything he “knows” about the other characters might be completely true, but it’s still important that it comes from a first-person perspective in Two Rivers. That is who can tell the town’s story, regardless of whether it’s real omnipotence or the appearance of omnipotence.

A second effective dynamic in The New York Stories is the usage of time, which functions as a multifaceted motif throughout the book. On the surface, the volumes cover one steady, long timeline. It’s not explicitly mentioned, but landmarks in the stories make me think it starts in the late seventies/early eighties and ends somewhere in the aughts. In the introduction, Tanzer thanks the filmmaker Richard Linklater and his Before trilogy, which spanned the early adulthood to middle-age stages of its main characters. In some ways, The New York Stories reminds me more of the literary equivalent of Linklater’s Boyhood, actually filmed over that type of time passage. It seems both have in common a rewarded leap of faith that the eventual collection of timed pieces would come together.

On another level, Tanzer uses time very effectively within each story. The full timeline of the book is in play and interchangeable in each story without ever feeling like a gratuitous dive into a flashback. Pieces are connected to each other through this subtle time exchange, a brief mention of who cheated on whom, or who can’t handle his Yuengling is all it takes.

One of the stories is called, “What We Talk about When We Talk about the Flood,” a direct homage to the great “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” by Raymond Carver. Tanzer’s is a quick three-pager that doesn’t intend to answer or to cover the ground of Carver’s, but in staying small, it accomplishes a lot. Carver dives into the elusive meaning of love via layered and complicated scenarios including an abusive spouse and characters on their second or third marriage questioning the permanence of love. Carver exits with this line:

I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.
(Raymond Carver, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” Vantage Book Edition, 1989, p. 154).

Tanzer’s characters are gathered in a similar social situation: a pair of couples toward the end of a longish drinking session. He intentionally keeps them from the layers Carver builds. The flood is too dominant. They talk less. They drink more.

And when we drink to love as the rain plasters our hair to our foreheads, the flood waters rise, and we slowly float away.
(p. 176)

I think Carver would appreciate the silence.

Alright, AWP 2016: The bar has been set high by Lippman and Tanzer. I can’t wait to read you.

Al Kratz is our Fiction Reviewer for The Volt. He is a writer from Des Moines, Iowa, an Assistant Fiction Editor at Pithead Chapel, and is currently working on a novel and a short story collection. He has had work featured in Red Savina Review, Wyvern Lit, Flash Flood, Daily Palette, Apeiron Review, Ardor Flash Fiction, 1000words, Gravel, Literary Orphans, and elsewhere, and he is the winner of the 2013 British Fantasy Society Flash Fiction Competition.

• An ARC of this book was given to Alternating Current by the author at an author reading event where the author met Alternating Current staffers. The reviewer met the author briefly and expressed interest in reviewing the book. • Permalink • Tag: The Volt •

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