Sex and Death
by Ben Tanzer
Because now here you are, wondering what comes next, but no longer wondering how you got here.
Award-winning author Ben Tanzer has packed Sex and Death, his small, powerful collection of short stories, with some insightful, evocative lines like this, lines that gently peel open and then tear at your heart.
This little gem of a book, measuring just 4½” x 6” and coming in at just over 70 pages, packs an outsized punch as Tanzer delves gently though unflinchingly at some of our sharpest emotions: love, lust, longing, ecstasy, anxiety. These short stories are populated with memorable characters who often go unnamed but whose feelings are so deeply felt that they practically vibrate with every page.
Tanzer, a Chicagoan whose many roles include director of acquisitions at Curbside Splendor, has in these pages captured and relayed passions at once unique and universal, tapping into emotions so many readers have experienced, feelings simultaneously isolating and invigorating, specific and common. There is a lot of pain in these stories, pain associated with love and longing and anger and fear. But Tanzer has a way in this collection of delivering that pain gently, with compassion and without judgment.
That he does so in each of these nine stories, some of them not much more than about 500 words, is remarkable. These are quiet stories, thoughtful and sympathetic. But they are not whispered. Many are written in a stream-of-consciousness style, internal thoughts barraging the narrator, often in a vicious circle of longing and fidelity.
Easily read from cover to cover in one sitting, Sex and Death takes us into the minds and hearts of tired parents, cuckolded spouses, crass teens discovering the difference between sex and love. Although each story is home to a different narrator and a new set of characters, the tone remains somewhat constant throughout, lending the collection the feel of a concept album. Each story makes sense on its own, each is compelling alone. But taken together, the collection is even more formidable, like a series of rolling waves crashing upon the shore again and again and again, soaking the reader in emotion.
As such, it’s easy to understand Tanzer’s status as a local favorite and as an award-winning writer. Sex and Death is a quick read, but it is a lasting read, with stories and characters and situations that settle in and don’t let go. It’s a gorgeous collection, carefully curated and lovingly told. A true must read.
January 2016, Sunnyoutside
$13, paperback, 72 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen