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Reviews Sun Aug 12 2012

Review: Lucky Man 5th Anniversary Edition by Ben Tanzer


The 5th Anniversary Edition of Lucky Man, the debut novel by Chicago author Ben Tanzer, was re-released by Artistically Declined Press in spring 2012. Lucky Man is about Gabe, Jake, Louie, and Sammy, four Generation X-ers growing up in upstate New York, narrating from their high school days and on. This special edition includes a foreword by Chicago writer, Brandon Will, an afterword and Q & A from Tanzer, and a re-published review of the novel from CCLAP.

The story is something of The Outsiders meets The Virgin Suicides. Like The Outsiders it involves a sleepy town and teenagers involved in violence, drugs, and reckless behavior. Unlike The Outsiders, which was written for a young adult audience, Lucky Man is for adult readers who can recall their own high school, college, and early 20s, and what it was like to discover their own story. Like The Virgin Suicides Tanzer's narrative possesses a sense of impending doom. The story spirals out from Jake's suicide, affecting the other characters' personal tragedies.

Lucky Man's setting is at first generic; their town goes unnamed, and the university that two characters attend is simply referred to as "State." We do not really know the specific setting until Sammy and Louie decide to move to California. This aspect of the story made it easily identifiable to any reader from any part of the country. I found myself picturing the Central Illinois factory town where I grew up, and Illinois State as their institution of choice.

Lucky Man includes a historic cultural point of view, infused with drugs, issues, and music specific to the eras the characters are experiencing. The reader peers through time as the characters find music from the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Violent Femmes, and other notables. As they move from Upstate New York, to San Francisco, to New York City, they witness or become enmeshed in the Deadhead scene, the crack crisis, and the Dot-Com Bubble to name a few. Gen-Xers should definitely pick this one up if not only to identify with the nostalgic narrative.

Although nostalgia plays a part in making this a worthy read, the nontraditional writing--Tanzer does not use quotation marks to mark dialogue--lends to some of the appeal. At first, I found it difficult to follow without attribution, but getting to know the characters' recognizable voices cleared things up. The resulting tone is conversational, and provides context for the its surprise ending (no spoilers ahead).

The ending is a bit confusing, described in the CCLAP review by Jason Pettus as an "...attempt to be clever in a Palahniuk kinda 'ah-hah' way, but without nearly as good a handle over how to do so." There is a schizophrenic dream-like quality here that is not crucial to the story, but does keep you guessing what will happen next.

If you are looking for a happy, light read, this is not the book for you. This is depressing, told realistically and true to life. Tanzer's writing is witty and engaging, and all together, this is one worth reading.

You can pick it up on your Kindle for $2.99 or order from Artistically Declined Press.

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