A Guide for the Grieving

a review of Ben Tanzer’s novella, My Father’s House

When a loved one dies unexpectedly, their sins are suddenly pardoned, lifelong points of contention are forever set aside, and those left behind to mourn huddle together, able to recount nothing but good times, the joyful highlights of the deceased person’s life. It is a common phenomenon.

But what happens when a person’s death is foretold in low blood platelet counts, a mysterious seizure, a trip to the hospital that ends in a diagnosis of cancer? What happens when a family is denied the grace of losing a loved one quickly, and instead must find a path toward making amends, finding closure, and saying goodbye, all while their father and spouse is suspended in the disquieting limbo between life and death?

 

Ben Tanzer’s latest novella, My Father’s House, soon to be released by Main Street Rag Publishing Company, examines this conflict and several others others often found in Tanzer’s fiction.

For instance, the narrator of My Father’s House is a social worker by profession:

“I am at work. I work at a drop-in center for the homeless. When people first walk in, there is a ping pong table to their right and a bunch of couches to the left crowded around a television. After that there is a desk where we greet people and I am sitting at that desk, trying to greet people as they come in for lunch and trying my best to answer their questions.”

An oxymoron of marital terms (deeply loving but not strictly monogamous):

“I’m in pain. I’ve got a dying father and this girl has something to offer, something almost medicinal, and it’s okay then, okay, okay, okay, something I keep telling myself as we have sex in the backseat of her car, legs everywhere, and then I walk back to my father’s house, stopping long enough to shower once there before climbing into bed with Kerri and drifting off to sleep, drunk and restless.”

A son driven to make his parents proud, but self-aware enough to admit that at times there were detrimental oversights in their parenting:

“I remember that he and my mom asked me to sit down in the kitchen so we could talk…they sat me down and told me how my father was moving out for a little while, but that things would be the same, and that I’s still see him as much as I ever did. I remember sitting there trying to look nonchalant and unbothered by the news, staring straight ahead the whole time, no emotions, no nothing. They asked if I had any questions but I didn’t say a word, choosing instead to casually shake my head no, focused on getting out and moving on before the tears came.”

Much of this is explored during the narrator’s therapy sessions, amid parallel, nearly-obsessive inner monologues concerning the therapist’s tiny hands. “I’m at the therapist’s. She is looking at me with that curly hair. And those hands, those tiny little hands that I want to suck on.”

Tanzer’s latest work will immediately strike a familiar chord in those who have had the great pleasure of reading his previous novels and collections. Still, My Father’s House is in many ways a stunning departure from the writer’s thematic repertoire. The writing here is incredibly direct, emotional, tender and honest. And again, Tanzer weaves in musical inspiration throughout the novella via Bruce Springsteen, but does not hide behind these references or use them as a catch-all to articulate what his characters are feeling.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, I beg you not to be deterred by Tanzer’s exploration of one family’s medical crisis. Heavy though the subject may be, this writer is one of very few who possess the ability to balance sadness with humor; dry and self-deprecating, and understated so as not to seem incongruent, his humor is thoroughly appreciated and at times much needed.

My Father’s House is a novella brave enough to strip itself bare and stand before its audience, vulnerable but unashamed. It is one you’ll hold to your heart after reading; a literary light capable of illuminating a story familiar to so many with nothing but utmost respect, love, and understanding.