Maintains the deep reflection and powerful overarching craft of a well-written memoir while maintaining the accessibility and pace of a collection of essays.
Nothing claiming to have knowledge of how to be cool can possibly be cool, right? With Ben Tanzer’s Be Cool, the answer is both yes and no, as it so often is in works of creative nonfiction. Much of Tanzer’s excellent book is about times where he was distinctly uncool, whereas other parts are about his desire to be cool and others still consider the meaning of cool and how the author’s own perception of coolness changed from the ‘80s to the ‘90s to the ‘00s (the book is divided into three sections, each a decade). Be Cool, self-categorized as “a memoir (sort of),” loosely traces the writer’s life from his “tween” years to adulthood over the course of 32 vignettes. These vignettes range from deep, full-blooded essays to smaller sketches, but all of them stand alone despite also linking together to form a cohesive arc. This is the primary accomplishment of a very accomplished book: it maintains the deep reflection and powerful overarching craft of a well-written memoir while maintaining the accessibility and pace of a collection of essays.
Tanzer begins and ends Be Cool with two of his more imaginative pieces. The opener, “When I Was Twelve,” captures the sweet, painful nostalgia of looking back on an American ‘80s childhood through action and physical detail rather than twee clichés. And the concluding piece, “Dear Future Husband,” is a crushingly warmhearted address to a potential future same-sex spouse, despite Tanzer’s current status as heterosexually, contentedly married. In these “chapters,” Tanzer uses childhood and same-sex marriage as Trojan horses to discuss what he is really interested in, which is his own fantasy world, a world where he can run all day without tiring, a place that is probably near Los Angeles, where rights aren’t oppressed, where his wife, mom and (maybe) kids are hanging out and where surfing, tacos, punk music and art flow in abundance.
Tanzer’s SoCal-set personal Narnia is a risky proposition to introduce, but it works in the case of Be Cool because Tanzer doesn’t come off as overly cynical or out of touch with reality. Instead, his writerly persona comes off as warmhearted and hopeful, which serves the book particularly well in darker moments. Nonfiction is crowded with dark, depressing stories of personal tragedies (which is less the fault of writers and publishers and more a symptom of these dark times), but Tanzer doesn’t go down that road. Be Cool stays buoyant, optimistic and very readable even through cancer scares, personal loss, fertility struggles and other sad times.
The descriptive language on display in Be Cool is gorgeous and Tanzer’s diverse portfolio of previous work has clearly allowed him to pull from many inspirations to create clever, vivid detail. He wisely uses movement, often in the form of running, to literally keep the action moving forward, and Be Cool never gets stuck.
This swift readability, however, also brings about Be Cool’s primary weakness, which is that it comes out in such a genial, likeable manner that, sometimes, certain moments feel like they could be mined for more laughs or tears. However, Tanzer’s refusal to manipulate his readers is worthy of respect.
Be Cool manages to carve out a unique place for itself in a crowded marketplace. It is rare for a book of this size and genre to read at such a swift, satisfying pace and rarer still for one to read with such warmth and wit.