In the beginning of You Can Make Him Like You, the new novel by Ben Tanzer, the narrator introduces himself: “Hello, my name is Keith, and I am a selfish cocksucker.” From that point forward, hearing Keith’s voice was just like hearing my own voice, but the version of me I don’t have to live with. Which makes it that much more entertaining.
Keith works at a small internet marketing group. He’s friendly but acerbic, self-aware but unpretentious, ridiculous but poignant. He is also married to Liz, a woman with ‘awesomely curly hair and long legs.’ Liz wants to have a baby with Keith, but Keith isn’t so stoked on the idea. At least, not initially. He starts the story as man-child, a normal dude who likes to have a couple gin and tonics and banter with his wife and their couple-friends about movies, politics and music. They’re all sailing along contently, until one couple embarks on an open marriage-type experiment, and Keith meets a woman he’d carried a large torch for in high school but always thought was out of his league. Not long after, Liz finally gets pregnant and Keith is forced to reconcile himself with becoming a father. Along the way, Obama is elected, awful neighbors drift in and out of the apartment next door, and the White Sox continues to lose. A brief recapitulation, yes, but events and character development progress organically, pulling you along in their wake. It makes me think this book is the Catcher in the Rye for those who read Catcher when they were Holden’s age, and, having reached that critical point again, are looking for something that feels similar but is more contemporary. Or maybe Catcher with the narrative voice of Sean Carswell, if Carswell had grown up in the Midwest instead of the beach. It’s like sitting next to one of your buddies at the bar, giving each other that One more, or have we had enough? look, knowing full well that you’ll sit and talk for another hour.
It was also easy to see myself, and people I know, in the other characters. They’re all incredibly authentic, almost frighteningly so at times, and even their mundane activities are imbued with significance. Whether they’re going to the Metro to watch The Hold Steady play or Tivo-ing The Shield while debating pregnancy sex with the wife, each carries a dramatic weight that compounds over the length of the book. There’d be an awful run-in with some jerk at the bar and I’d breathe a quick laugh then look around me, completely positive that I’ve never told anyone about the time that happened to me, so how the hell’d they find out? I squirmed in other scenes, watching tense and awkward interaction between my wife and I play out in the pages before me. Didn’t tell anyone about that either, so how’d they know what I was thinking, too? The day after one of these interactions, in a characteristically frank and uncomfortably honest passage, Keith is at work with his feet on his desk, staring out the window and thinking:
‘I’m not thinking about micro-sites, Facebook or Word-of-Mouth marketing. I am not thinking about babies, why I sometimes want to run away from Liz, how confused I am as to how I got here, or, why I’m such a fake, better able to write copy for a PBR non-press release than honestly identify a single feeling of my own.
‘I am not even thinking about Patrick Ewing, still my all time favorite athlete, with his epic mix of awesomeness and endlessly vulnerable grandiosity.
‘No, what I’m thinking about is how I would respond if someone asked me to take sides in the argument regarding REM versus U2 as the super-group of the late 80s and early 90s.’
Comparisons to High Fidelity–the film, specifically–are bound to turn up, and they aren’t inaccurate. There’s the Chicago setting, the good clubs, good bands, good films. But You Can Make Him Like You is, I think, the book High Fidelity could’ve been, wanted to be. Where Rob Gordon uses all of the references to deflect real life in High Fidelity, Keith fluently speaks pop culture, uses them as a means to find his way through the process of becoming an adult and a father. After Liz broaches the subject of ‘practice sex’–for when they start trying to have a baby–Keith becomes unmoored in his head for a few awkward seconds:
‘If this were a romantic comedy this is the point where Ryan Reynolds, Jude Law, Gerard Butler, Kal Penn, Will Smith or whoever was playing me would look deeply into the eyes of Cameron Diaz, Eva Mendez, Sandra Oh, Diane Lane, Sanaa Lathan, or whoever was playing Liz, gently cup her face and become the most awesome version of me ever […] and even if they encountered a series of hurdles, like the moment I am tempted by the hot sister played by Gabrielle Union, Julia Styles or Bridget Monahan, from this point forward everyone watching would still know it was going to be okay […]
‘Sadly though, Nora Ephron has not written this moment for us.’
It’s funny because we usually project the ideal version of ourselves, and it’s true because, for some of us, the language of film has started to become the language of our thoughts. Passages like this reminded me more of the BBC series Spaced, especially when viewed in the context that the series isn’t a pastiche nor homage, but that the characters are so immersed in pop culture that their lives become filtered through it. I can see Keith when he’s imagining himself as Vic Mackey, tearing through the living room. I can hear Keith’s steps synching with Hold Steady songs while night-running. In a society as inundated with media as we are now, he seems only the natural product of the environment rather than an inserted element.
Each section of the novel is titled after a Hold Steady song, and Keith finds solace in their lyrics the same way I sing Lucero songs when I’m feeling lonely. So what happens? Right after I read the book I find myself outside the record store with two Hold Steady albums in my backpack. I just want to know what he’s talking about. I want to be in on the joke, as it were. Admittedly, with a book as niche-centric as this, there’s the risk of alienating readers, but the cultural swatch from which Tanzer cuts is so gigantic that even if you get lost on one reference, there’s always other quotes, there’s always other allusions (Yeah, that was one right there.) True to the ethos of the book, not all of Keith’s problems are resolved, and some are even more open-ended than when we started. Of those that are, some are happy and some are sad. Overall, though, it leaves you feeling pretty damn good about yourself.