Sex and Death, by Ben Tanzer. Buffalo, New York: sunnyoutside, January 2016. 72 pages. $13.00, paper.
With a title as provocatively Freudian as Sex and Death, a reader might expect a book of stories that never ends, or one that encapsulates the life of every person who has ever existed on the planet. Well, a concise, easily portable collection like this one (a mere seventy-two pages long) from Ben Tanzer is never going to be an encyclopedia. However, Sex and Death demonstrates an admirably broad and universal exemplification of its two named topics. (For the record, there is much more sex than death in the book.) Across nine stories, Tanzer, like a practiced composer playing with various renditions on a simple theme, explores a plethora of possible scenarios for, and outcomes of, sexual—often illicit—attraction. Everything from pure mental fancy to full-bore adult affair to mean adolescent manipulation. What each story reminds us of is the naggingly persistent, self-centered nature of physical desire and physical need; yet at the same time, the stories show the potentially devastating consequences of allowing ourselves to become merely physical creatures. Life is not that simple, Tanzer seems to say; nor is humanity; nor is sex.
The overall arc of the book is that it moves from less realized and less complicated relationships to more meaningful, bittersweet, and even traumatic ones. This is to say that investment on the parts of both the characters and the reader in the stories’ dramas consistently deepens, making this a volume that one must read to the end. With its slim size, a reader can do that in one highly entertaining sitting.
The first story, “The Look of Love,” details an experience anyone could have at nearly any time in the life: seeing an attractive stranger on a plane and inventing a fantasy future with that person. The second, meanwhile, titled “The Talk,” features a young father-narrator who recounts his own father’s sad, heavy-handed attempt at teaching him about sex. In “He’s Gone,” a new widow fantasizes about confronting her dead husband’s ex-mistress. Then about a third of the way through, the story “Anatomy of an Affair” decidedly accelerates the movement of the collection. The story becomes just what the title says: a quizzical explanation from an almost surprised narrator of how he ended up in the bed of a woman he only knows from the drop-off line at his son’s school. Old enough to have children but young enough to still be sexy, they are each at a dangerous point in their respective marriages: so bored they have developed a wandering eye, and so selfish they actually act on it. Thus, they end up in a situation neither precisely wants nor benefits from.
That story is appropriately followed by the frightening “Taking Flight”—frightening because it is easy to see how this scenario could play out any day of any year—a story in which a young married woman reconnects with an old boyfriend on Facebook and is happy to find that he, though married too, is still interested in her. However, the young married woman quickly realizes the depth of the ex-boyfriend’s desperation and, worse, how broad, how pecking, his anger for her having rejected him in the first place, all those years ago. Only because their renewed relationship is purely electronic is the woman able to escape with her life, her marriage, and her self-image more or less intact.
Possibly the most devastating story in the whole volume is “Dead or Alive,” a title which, in addition to referencing a Bon Jovi song that comes up in the story, perfectly captures the various currents of the whole collection. The story is the only one in the book in which the major dramatic events take place long ago—in this case, 1986. But it is also the standout story of the volume, a contemporary classic, an honest but horrifying demonstration of how a teenaged love triangle, exacerbated by unrestrained impulses and latent selfishness can lead to literal lifetimes of hurt.
In “Dead or Alive,” a boy decides to make it with an isolated, socially awkward girl who has long been infatuated with him; not because he suddenly shares her feelings, but because one evening he finds her looking much prettier than he expected. It ends up being a relatively meaningless evening of romance for the narrator, but one that emotionally ruins the girl for anyone else, including the narrator’s best friend, who in fact does have feelings for the girl, feelings that do not lessen even after decades, feelings that leave him stranded and frustrated time after time after time. Perhaps predictably, things do not turn out well for the girl, and the reader cannot help but blame the narrator for this. But what gives the story its eminently powerful ending is that the now older narrator knows better than anyone exactly how much he is to blame. Indeed, that murky air of self-incrimination, the reader realizes, has lain atop the story like a poisoned atmosphere from the very first sentence: darkening it, determining it, muffling its exuberance. Thus concludes the narrator:
The fact is, I am not a cowboy and I am not rocking on, and though people do go their separate ways, when there is a war, there are casualties, and someone has to take responsibility for that.
The mood of the story is emblematic of the entire volume. With its spare, dark, and unforgiving prose, Sex and Death presents the emotional, mental, and spiritual minefield that is sensual relationships in the contemporary Internet age: post-sexual revolution, post-AIDs, post-abortion pill, post-Facebook, post-Tinder. If nothing else, Tanzer seems to say, we are restless, fantasy-haunted creatures. But the problem with fantasies is that for every one that comes true, there are a hundred casualties that can never be mended.
John Vanderslice hails from southern Maryland, specifically the eccentric community of Moyaone. He has an MFA in Poetry Writing from George Mason University and a PhD in English from the University of Louisisana-Lafayette. He lives in Conway, Arkansas, where he is Associate Professor at the University of Central Arkansas, teaching fiction writing, poetry writing, and nonfiction writing both to undergraduates and to graduate students in the Arkansas Writers MFA Workshop. He also serves as an associate editor of Toad Suck Review magazine.