Reviewed: Ben Tanzer’s “You Can Make Him Like You”

Review by Tobias Carroll

You Can Make Him Like You
by Ben Tanzer
Artistically Declined Press; 214 p.

“I am a selfish cocksucker.” That’s how Keith, the narrator of Ben Tanzer’s You Can Make Him Like You, first introduces himself to us. And throughout the book, Tanzer leaves it up to the reader to determine whether or not that self-assessment is accurate. Keith is a contradictory figure: the lone conservative in his social group; a man who enjoys the music of The Hold Steady and occasionally fantasizes about historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. In fact, Keith’s mind is where much of the novel plays out: the first half finds him contemplating the state of his marriage and his attraction to an intern in his office, while the second focuses on his impending fatherhood. And in both, Keith sometimes drifts from a matter-of-fact recounting of events to a more subjective and surreal perspective.

Tanzer’s opening sentence (“I am on top of the intern”) is the sort to inspire shudders at his narrator’s behavior, but he eventually reveals that Keith’s adultery is entirely in his mind. This isn’t always a perfect approach: a few of the situations in which Keith finds himself have a broader comedic tone that’s at odds with the novel’s ultimately introspective tone. That tone ultimately reveals the depths of Keith’s self-loathing, which in turn has cultivated a judgmental streak of a not insignificant size. This tendency eventually leads to far more problems than Keith’s imagined affairs, theoretical political clashes, or concerns about his own selfishness.

Tanzer sets the novel in 2008, and the Presidential election provides something of a backdrop for its events. And while the Obama/McCain race does show up a few times, its context is less about Keith’s politics and more related to his fondness for Chicago. At its core, You Can Make Him Like You abounds with empathy for its characters, at times in unexpected ways. His levels of self-deception make Keith a subtly unreliable narrator: for all that he’s critical of his own behavior, his own worst aspects elude him. It’s notes like this that help make this book a more subtly complex read than one might first expect.