The New York Stories by Ben Tanzer
The culmination of nine years of writing, The New York Stories is an unusual collection in a number of ways. Set around the small, rural-New York town of Two Rivers, these stories appeared in three previously published volumes — Repetition Patterns, So Different Now, and After the Flood — and are gathered here for the first time. Tanzer’s work is also unusual for what it doesn’t include: a central plot thread. I’d read some of Tanzer’s other writings (the man is amazingly prolific) but was unfamiliar with any of the Two Rivers stories, so my expectations were set by the format: three books in one, a traditional literary trilogy indicating a long story arc with a few central characters the reader can watch progress and root for. However, The New York Stories jumps to new narrators in almost every story with little connection but the parallel settings and downward spirals of the characters’ lives. My preconceived notions were quickly dashed, the highest praise a reviewer can bestow on a book.
The cascade of ever-changing characters can be a bit confusing, but the effect is intentional. Tanzer gives the reader an impression of the whole town through the individuals, each with a small-townie name such as George, Tracey, Stephanie, and Robby Jr. The multitude washes by quickly as most stories are a swift ten pages or less. Eventually the recurring themes crystallize and give the reader a sense of the true aim: Two Rivers is the main character. The story arc is the life-cycle of American small towns.
The story arc of Two Rivers is apparent in the progression of the book’s three volumes. The first, Repetition Patterns, is more focused on the past. A number of the stories take place in the 80s and center on students in junior high and high school dealing with sexuality, Pac-Man, and a desire to escape. “The Babysitter” is a particularly striking story set around a group of friends: Billy, Amy, Tracey, Liz, and Frank. The story begins with the shallow concerns of babysitting, underage drinking, and rounding the proverbial bases. As the narrative progresses, the reader learns about the darker aspects of the teenagers’ lives. Liz accidentally murdered her little sister. Tracey has a baby with Billy’s father Larry. Billy secretly watches Larry as he sleeps with half the women and girls in Two Rivers: “Larry proceeds to tell Frank all about Tracey and Liz and the dozens of other moms and daughters in the neighborhood he’s slept with over the years. ‘It’s beautiful in a way, actually,’ Larry says, pensively staring into the darkness beyond the porch. ‘All the joy I’ve spread.’ ”
Larry’s words read as sarcastic in context of the full collection: joy is a rare feeling in Two Rivers. Many characters hide dark secrets, cheat on their spouses, and take advantage of one another. Their lives tangle into a twisted mess that’s difficult to unravel, a purposeful move on Tanzer’s part. “The Babysitter” layers the actions and mistakes of a half dozen characters in a brief nine pages. As the story ends, the reader is dropped into a new narrative with its own characters dealing with their complicated lives in high school.
So Different Now advances the perspectives in small ways with a few following strings. Both beginning volumes feature stories about a nameless narrator trying different therapists. Regret is a common theme with many of the characters in this section reflecting on rather than living out their lives. The volume’s title is ironic, as the opening lines of the title story “So Different Now” illustrate: “She’s right there in Thirsty’s. In her usual spot. Drinking her usual drink. Yuengling on tap. One after another.” In this story the narrator has an affair with Becky, a girl who’d been obsessed with him in high school. While most of So Different Now’s stories center on the lives of Two Rivers’s adults, the characters are constantly assaulted by their own pasts. In “Goddess” the narrator runs into Jenny, a girl he almost kissed in high school who’s moved back to Two Rivers with her abusive husband. The story opens as Jenny asks the narrator, “So, do you still think I’m hot?” Tanzer does a wonderful job tracking the narrator’s thoughts as his past feelings rush back:
When I initially hear all of this, it doesn’t occur to me that I’ve been thinking about Jenny in the back of my head all these years. Not as I got married, or as I have tried to hang onto a marriage that is fine enough, but stale. I’m pretty sure I’ve never looked at other women either, but now that I know I’m going to see Jenny again and talk to her, I start wondering if we will be able to steal away and pick up where we left off that night in the kitchen. Soon it is all that I can think about. Well, that and whether I am part of the reason she wanted to come home.
So Different Now is the middle sequence in the small-town arc, but — despite the reflective narratives and aged characters — almost nothing is different. Tanzer realizes this grinding consistency so well, readers will be consumed by thoughts of their own hometowns.
After the Flood is the most cohesive section of The New York Stories with every story taking place on the same day as a historic flood in Two Rivers. Most of the narrators are somewhat older and face hard decisions in dealing with the rising water. Tanzer works the phrase “storm of the century” into every story, further embedding the idea of Two Rivers as a collective character. After the Flood is a perfect stopping point for the larger arc as the stagnant small town experiences a violent renewal.
On the sentence level, The New York Stories is superb. Each line reads as brisk, light, and, imagistic. Tanzer’s stories are rich in detail, pulling a reader along from one short piece to the next. “The Gift” has a particularly elegant beginning focused on Fern, a girl obsessed with sounds:
As a child, Fern would spend all afternoon sitting in front of the washing machines at the neighborhood laundromat listening to the shwap, shwap, shwap of the water sloshing about, the blades spinning, the socks and underwear crashing into one another. She would lay in the endless fields behind the neighborhood church and listen to the landscaping crew for hours, the tinny whine of the lawnmower motor and the occasional ping of a rock getting caught underneath it, bringing her great pleasure and solace.
The New York Stories is an ambitious work, seeking no less than to illustrate the collective lives of small towns. Tanzer’s large-scale vision brings this goal into focus, but it’s his quick prose that keeps readers moving through each story with satisfaction and ease. If you’re interested in the dark and dirty cycles of America’s small towns, pick up this book.