My Father's House

By Ben Tanzer

Main Street Rag
August 2011

Reviewed by Anna March


The death of God left the angels in a strange position. They were overtaken suddenly by a fundamental question. One can attempt to imagine the moment. How did they look at the instant the question invaded them, flooding the angelic consciousness, taking hold with terrifying force? The question was, "What are angels?"

These opening lines from Donald Barthleme's "On Angels" came to me again and again while reading Ben Tanzer's novella, My Father's House. Just as Barthelme's angels wrestled with their identity in the absence of God, so too does Tanzer's unnamed protagonist wrestle with the big questions—who am I? who am I going to be?—as he watches his father die.

The novella's plot is straightforward: a man's father is diagnosed with a rare cancer and puts up a losing fight against the disease. The son travels back and forth from his home in Chicago to visit his father on the East Coast over and over again while working at a drop-in center for homeless people, going on frequent runs, drinking a lot of beer, and screwing around on his wife, the patient and supportive Kerri. But what the novella is about is what happens to our narrator. 

In short chapters that mark the trajectory of his father's deterioration, a new imagining of self takes shape within the son. As he negotiates the rigors of his father's demise—weight loss, high fevers, blood transfusions—he grapples with coming to a deeper, less-automatic understanding of his own identity, motivations, and choices. As he says, "…things aren't always what they seem to be… you have to constantly revisit what you think you know, because it might all be wrong."

The narrator's feelings of pain and loss and anger, and a certain low-level, constant sorrow, start to surface. He has spent a lifetime submerging these emotions, a practice encouraged by his father who is also stoic about his pain. But now, as his father comes to the end of his life, he is expressing his sadness, mentioning his regrets, weeping even. The son's cool exterior is razored open a bit; at one point he says to a group he's facilitating at work:

All right, fine, fuck it. You want to know what's going on. You want to know how my dad is dying from this really fucked-up form of cancer and how doctors can keep promising they know how to save him, but they don't and they can't and so he will be dead soon and I'm not sure how to deal with that? Or how about the fact that my dad wasn't always living with us when I was a kid and I'm sure I have a lot of unresolved shit related to that, but I just don't know how to square that with my dad being so sick it seems all wrong to start discussing this now? I know you would probably like to know that I've been drinking a lot, especially when I'm home, and when I'm out drinking I sometimes sleep with women other than my wife, including one who once followed me home when I was a kid, so I know there's some twisted nostalgia-laden element to all this though I just can't say for sure, because again, I'm mellow and everything is cool.

Everything changes when you say the truth out loud; our narrator realizes "that I am capable of so much more." He comes to the important understanding that he can use his father's death and his relationship with his father not as finite historical facts, but rather as twin jumping-off points in his own life, places to build from and mature as a man and a husband—no more cheating on his wife, for instance. He realizes that he can even make conscious decisions about what kind of father he himself will eventually be.

My Father's House never becomes precious or sentimental—quite the magician's trick in a novella about a dying parent. Tanzer's narrator keeps watching the decidedly unfunny Saturday Night Live because of the shared experience of watching it with his father. He tells himself his dad is doing okay so he can take a break from visiting. His mother counsels him to "believe in whatever helps," which is how most of us navigate the unbearable. He's upset when an old friend wants to hang out and have a beer when he himself can't imagine doing anything besides sitting next to his father's bed, listening to make sure he is still breathing. Our narrator takes unparalleled obsessive pleasure in locating ingrown hairs and successfully releasing them; it can be a tremendous thing to have control over something so trivial when we have so little control over the larger matters of literal life and death. We want life to stand still when someone we love is dying. We want them to be immune from tragedy. But life—and death—goes on.

A pleasant enough, somewhat colorless man who rather coolly lives on the outskirts of his feelings, and cheats on his wife without remorse, does not evoke feelings of great affection. Yet I came to love the character and believed in the changes that occurred within him, and by the end of the book I did see him as a hero: a hero of his own life. My Father's House is an affecting meditation on how we can—and sometimes do—become better versions of ourselves; on how we can grieve and at the same time transcend loss. It offers an important reminder that we are all artists in our own way, if only on the canvas that is our life, and that we create the finest art the more connected to the world and ourselves we are. It is a brave look at how fear binds us, and all that is to be gained when we let ourselves feel even the most painful truths. It is an ambitious work and it succeeds. In My Father's House are many mansions; every one of them is worth exploring.