It is fitting that as disciplined and obsessive a writer as Ben Tanzer–who, by way of disclosure, I have known for years–would produce a book like this, a lean volume of reflections on how the act of running feeds his creative habit. Autobiographical in that most intimate sense of an artist’s working notebook, though polished into its present form with the help of a rigid framework based in part, structurally, on Haruki Murakami’s book on running, 99 Problems explores Tanzer’s belief that “Running produces a means for escaping mental clutter, which most of the time allows for processing ideas and untangling the kinks that slow the evolution of any story” by chronicling specific runs in specific places and the ways those runs helped with the “untangling” of specific stories. While Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was, as Tanzer says, “about the pure act of running itself, in all of its metaphysical and quotidian awesomeness,” his own book is very much about writing, with running as a necessary step in the artistic process. Yet this process, as construed by Tanzer, encompasses everything. Consider this diary-like passage:
Last night I went to listen to Ike Reilly at Schubas, and many beers were drunk. I got home late and, after watching television and gabbing with my wife for an hour, I didn’t sit down to write until 2:30 in the morning. That got me to bed at 3:30 in the morning, and then back up at 7:30 in the morning to get the boys ready for school. Then after that it was time for my annual physical, for which I have been fasting since midnight, clear liquids only; I am allowed to drink coffee, but have not. At the physical I give blood, and have a prostate exam. Sweet. I walk to the supermarket, so I can help my wife carry the groceries back to the house. We get home and watch the latest winner of American Idol perform on Oprah.
While much of 99 Problems consists of monologues on stories-in-process, garnished with scenery from the run in which such monologues, to some degree, unfurled, the larger story here is Tanzer himself, the writer and his life, a portrait of the author as man no longer so young, though defined by a youthful exuberance and attitude (“Sweet”) in the face of the responsibilities and anxieties of adulthood. In athletic exertion, Tanzer wrestles with his own physicality; running was easier, he writes, “before the kidney stones and cancer scares, colonoscopies and high cholesterol, arthritis and biopsies,” yet that long-ago time was “also before September 11th, before my father died, before I became a father as well….” All of these things are approached as fodder for writing, of course, something that, like running, is more than the sum of its parts, more than, say, “drugs or sex. Or Pringles” because it encompasses and orders all of these things, imposing a structure upon the otherwise random, be it terrifying (“cancer scares…September 11th”) or merely banal, like the hours in Atlanta that Tanzer alchemizes into something solid, with words:
I land. Get off of the plane. Board the tram. Exit the tram. Navigate the terminal. Buy a Breeze card. Board the Marta. Exit the Marta. Walk to the Springhill Suites. Check in. Take elevator to room. Plug in laptop. Check email. Open bag. Remove running clothes. Remove running shoes. Put on running clothes. Put on running shoes. Grab iPod. Leave room. Take elevator down to lobby. Leave hotel. Start running. Victory. Atlanta.
As I said, there is something diary-like to much of this, yet there is something more here, too; a writer at work, crafting raw experience into product, with discipline and hunger. If anything, there is a bit too much discipline in these pages, with the inadvertent effect of self aggrandizement. Obsessive about folding laundry, obsessive about television, and obsessive about hitting the streets to push through new thoughts on the day’s story, Tanzer can come across as if feigning what might be meant as intimate moments of introspection. When he admits, “maybe I do enjoy whatever ‘outsider’ status it is I think I possess, but I don’t think it’s been holding me back or making me less ambitious, has it?” His question seems insincere. “I always thought the whole effort was about improving my craft and seeking opportunities, and that like with running, when my skill level and the right opportunity converged I would grab it,” he says, but by this point we don’t need to be told, we have already seen.
And yet, 99 Problems also offers insistent reminders of what we have not yet seen, standing as a series of paced training runs for competitive literary projects to come, both the stories it describes working through and larger future projects emerging from the basic dynamic it seeks to describe, not just that running fuels writing but that “the bigger you feel things, the more curious you are; and the more problems you want to solve and not actually run from, the better everything is, even the things you already love.” I take this to be not only a nice summary of Tanzer’s approach to the world (as seen in his two novels and story collection), but also a promising manifesto of intent.