You can run but you can’t hide. At least not from your own life. Keith, the self-absorbed protagonist of Ben Tanzer’s You Can Make Him Like You, is sucker-punched by this lesson over and over again. Yet, as one can expect from Tanzer, the blows are at turns funny, tragic, and often spot-on in revealing the anxieties that scratch beneath our own skins.
What ails Keith is life itself. Or rather an adult life with all its complications and irresolvable issues that always require a bit of character sacrifice. His life is neatly ordered and sorted, a well-crafted mix of job, friends and a wife. But there’s temptation everywhere Keith looks. And sure, he would never do anything to ruin his marriage, right? Right? Liz, headstrong and the adult of the two, also won’t budge on having a child, an event that Keith views more as an intrusion than bundle of joy. Order is quickly becoming uncertainty and a lack of control. Keith, who never wants to confront anything and would prefer to suppress these difficult issues with a jog in the cool Chicago air, is better at avoiding life or trying to hide in the checklist of cultural touchstones he surrounds himself with. He ties his emotional issues to romantic comedies, Hold Steady songs, Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey character on The Shield, and even Patrick Ewing. So when the kid finally does arrive, and things don’t go as planned, not even Vic Mackey can save him.
At first impulse, if you read the plot on the back of a book, it would all sound a little too cliché. Yet, Tanzer’s love of writing pop stories, that reveling in what can be new and poignant in oft-tread ground, wins the day. His greatest skill — and it’s been this way through all of his novels and short stories — is to take the normal, the everyday we all know and live through, and to turn that into great tragicomedy. Like his protagonist, Tanzer is obsessed with the art of a great pop song: Three chords, three minutes, and out. But the emotion is so pure, you can’t deny it. You Can Make Him Like You hits the reader like that and hits it just right.
Ask anyone who has tried: often those are the hardest songs to write.