Friend of the blog Ben Tanzer has a new book out called You Can Make Him Like You. I enjoy talking books over beers with Ben when he’s in Atlanta, and I think that we share the same sensibilities. So starting from a not very objective place, you’ll have to take my word for it that You Can Make Him Like You is Tanzer’s best work yet, and I expect that it will propel him onto his largest stage to date. Today The Next Big Book Club blog named him one of the 10 authors who deserve more recognition. So it’s not just me feeling the love here.
You Can Make him Like You is a coming of middle-age tale about a young-at-heart Chicagoan named Keith. He’s a not-so young Republican who is coming to grips with a world full of adult change – married life, friends with rocky marriages, beginning a family, dealing with the family that he already has – the usual adult baggage. Keith struggles against these changes that are slowly moving him from the world that he is comfortable in towards the world of the anti-Keith, the Keith that he actually thinks that he’d like to become. If he can figure out how to get there.
As much as Keith resists change, he is even more averse to conflict. He imagines scenes of how he might respond to conflicts both small, imagined arguments about the comparisons of bands past their prime, and large, how he should have handled that jerk in the bar, how trysts might have turned out, things that he ought to tell his parents. Change and potential conflict keep Keith up nights.
Keith tries to deal with his growing unease by talking about his feelings with the guys over beer. They want him to shut up and watch the game already. He sees a therapist but calls it quits when things begin to get sticky:
“You know,” Jeff says, “people sometimes leave therapy because they know it’s about to get harder. Do you think that’s the case here?”
“Maybe,” I reply, “but I think I’m cool.”
Of course, he’s not cool at all. His anxiety finally bubbles over into a rambling monologue when he is called upon (while hungover) to share what he’s learned in the morning’s child safety class:
…it’s pretty intense, you want your kid to be safe, and you want to raise them in a world that is safe…I’ll admit it’s on my mind at times, all the time maybe, and you can come to a class like this…but…you can do everything right and something could still go wrong, things go wrong, you cannot control for all that, even when you’re really controlling, even when you don’t let your kid breathe and are always trying to be sure that they are always the best.
It’s like that scene in The Breakfast Club when Emilio Estevez is talking about how he wishes his knee would just give sometimes, so that he wouldn’t be expected to accomplish so much, and his dad, his fucking dad wouldn’t be endlessly riding him to win, win, win so he can earn a college scholarship…and you don’t want to be the kind of parent that who expects that, and so maybe this isn’t about safety, maybe it’s about not wanting to be that kind of parent, and father…because that’s possible, right, yeah, of course it is.”
Forget reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting, all future parents should read the chapter where Tanzer’s brilliantly and hilariously summarizes the first weeks of parenthood. As someone who has recently lived through it, it reads as absolute truth.
Keith’s fear of letting go of fading youth while trying to gracefully grow into the realities of adulthood provides the tension of the novel. And it’s a place where most of us find ourselves at one point or another. Keith just gets there later than most.
If you recognize that the book takes its name from a song by The Hold Steady, a small indie rock band that is HUGE among a certain demographic, then this book is definitely up your alley. If you frequently ask yourself what you want to be when you grow up, even though that question should have been answered a decade or more ago, then you’ll find yourself nodding and laughing along with parts of this book and wriggling in discomfort at others that may hit a little too close to home. Or maybe I’m projecting. This is a genuinely great story, and I recommend you check it out.
The song that inspired the title:
The Hold Steady – You Can Make Him Like You
Keith imagines this argument:
“…what I’m thinking is how I would respond if someone asked me to takes sides in the argument regarding REM (sic) versus U2 as the super-group of the late 80′s and early 90′s. It’s not clear to me that one has to take sides, but I’m leaning towards U2 anyway. REM’s got nothing that can touch “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
U2 – Where the Streets Have No Name
And I’d have to argue the other way. Exhibit A:
R.E.M. – Begin the Begin
Have you seen Portlandia? Did you see the one with the “put a bird on it” mantra for creating art? I ask because the publisher of You Can Make Him Like You, Artistically Declined Press, has taken the bird thing and gone one better – their logo is a bird with antlers. Need I mention that they are based in Portland?