My Father’s House has all the hallmarks of a Ben Tanzer novel: the characters are socially aware and mired in pop culture; they struggle with coming to a deeper understand of themselves; they run and shoot pool and frequent dive bars and stack the coffee table high with The Nation, Cineaste and New Yorker magazines. This novel though, Tanzer’s sixth, has taken a markedly darker path.
When his father is diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer, the protagonist is sent into a self-evaluating spiral. He flies from his home (Chicago) to Johns Hopkins Hospital (Baltimore) several times a month, all while watching his father disintegrate, then rally, then fall further apart. Along the way, pool is shot, Yuenglings are drunk, affairs are waged and endless miles run. This is a very rough synopsis of the book, but one I believe is apt because, ultimately, we know what the final outcome will be. It’s no shock when it happens, but surprise isn’t the point. Despite the thin spine, My Father’s House carries the most gravity of all Tanzer’s books. While the actual plot could be labeled as meandering, the emotional narrative is taut as any thriller on the shelf. The narrator’s frenzied, jumbled interior monologues lower the reader’s guard, allowing us to slip into his mindset and experience death through him. Early in the book, when his father is managing, he sits alone in the living room watching SNL.
“The show is not funny anymore, but I watch it because my dad liked to watch it. I watch it because we do things our parents did without even consciously knowing we are doing them. I watch it because my dad will likely be dead sooner than later and I need to hold onto whatever I have of him.”
Later, at his father’s funeral, he finds himself standing between his wife and a childhood neighbor he’s recently slept with a few times.
“[…]I’m struck, if only briefly that we can never escape our regrets, we can adapt to them, we can try to ignore them, because something will always be there to remind us of mistakes, failures and weaknesses, it’s the way of the world and my dad may or may not have understood this before he got sick, but he certainly did at the end.”
Although many of Tanzer’s characters are not coy with their emotions–inarticulate, possibly, but not shy–House brings to us a narrator who doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve as much as he constructs an entire wardrobe of it. Running along the late-night lakefront, he has a conversation with himself:
“If you don’t mind me asking, why are you always riffing on popular, political and world happenings, and why are you so flippant about it?’
“I guess it all has something to do with time in general, and lost time in particular. How I have entered the world of the diseased and in this world time ceases to exist in so many ways.”
“But of course not. The world does not stop for any man, not even your dad.”
“Exactly, so on another note, how can it be that he can be dying and the world is not taking notice on any level in any way? It is so very big to me, and so all consuming, how can’t everyone feel the same? And more importantly, how can a Senate race seem remotely important in comparison?”
There’s a bluntness with the narrator that is almost painful, but has some weird type of understated elegance that turns this novella into a road map of the soul, trading cartographic symbols for faces and bottles of Yuengling and cutting observations of our selves laid bare. Following a particularly positive trip, he settles back into routine in Chicago:
“For even when the afterglow of hope is still kind of washing over us, reality has settled back in. There are rising blast counts in my father’s peripheral blood and low platelet and red blood counts as well. There is fatigue. And there will be no waiting until spring to visit Johns Hopkins. He will go soon, he will stay and we will hope for the best.”
“We cannot forget what we are dealing with, we should not give up hope, not ever, but we cannot forget, not for one day, not for one moment that this disease is fatal if not treated.
My father may yet be saved, the bone marrow donor drives being held on his behalf may unearth a still to be discovered donor, and modern science may still open some door, but there are no miracles here, it just doesn’t work like that.”
Though the overall tone is a much more somber one than Tanzer usually brings, there’s a gutting insightfulness to My Father’s House. The characters are flawed and fumble through life, relationships, jobs. They make poor choices and they hurt each other, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. Even when they lie, though, whether to themselves or each other, they’re still telling a version of truth. Their truths are beautiful and painful and sometimes hard to accept, but they’re ones that keep us going, day after day, until the day we’re not.