At some point in your relationship with You Can Make Him Like You, you may want to familiarize yourself with the Hold Steady, a Brooklyn-based rock group with roots in Springsteen, Husker Du, and the Twin Cities. Author Ben Tanzer says the novel is “inspired by, and an homage to” the group: It’s from their discography that Tanzer borrows its title and section headings, and when protagonist Keith can’t handle the pressures of a thirtysomething Chicagoan, he spins Boys and Girls in America or Stay Positive, the group’s two break-out records.
Further, Tanzer has said he sees his characters as older versions of the Hold Steady’s recurring cast. Whereas the Steady’s Gideon, Charlemagne and Hallelujah (aka Holly) are perpetually partying like it’s the summer before senior year, Keith, his wife Liz, and best friend John have settled into full time jobs as viral marketers and social workers complete with concerns for their credit score—partying when and where, and how, they are able.
Though maybe what I mean is that an intimate knowledge of the Hold Steady is a good idea in general (full disclosure: I’m a dyed-in-the-wool ‘Stead Head, myself). Because to be honest, knowing their music backward and front won’t necessarily offer any off-the-chart insight to You Can Make Him Like You, except that you’ll get earworms each time you pick up the book.
You may, however, want to invest in Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD’s book, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from Late Teens through the Twenties. Although Keith is rounding up to 40 years old, he still very much embodies the characteristics of an emerging adult—explorations of drugs, a dependence on alcohol, mild obsessions with sex, occasionally violent mood swings, and the desire to be parent-less while desperately seeking someone who will bestow wisdom.
All this from a man who has also accomplished four of the five standard milestones of adulthood: Keith is married (1), with a decent-paying job (2), and long-graduated from college (3) and from his parent’s house (4). Arnett, however, explains that these landmarks consistently rank low on the demographic’s criteria of adulthood; instead they look to less-tangible measures including “accepting responsibility for one’s self and making independent decisions” (from Arnett’s pioneering 2000 article in Psychology Today). In the face of the fifth and final watermark for ultimate adulthood—having a child—Keith questions whether he really lives up to his internal concept of a “real adult.”
Just look at him trying to negotiate between self-focused ogling (and fantasizing) and finally bucking up, a few days after he runs into a former crush at a high school reunion:
I stare out the window at the empty parking lot behind our building. I will not be calling Rachel Drake, and I never planned to, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make some changes. I can avoid other women, and I can avoid the thought of other women, and I can be better.
Or maybe don’t familiarize yourself with or invest in any secondary source outside the novel. This is life after all, something the whole of us are fairly familiar with already, and in You Can Make Him Like You, Tanzer comes exceedingly close to a perfect capture of life’s asymptotes, with help from the Hold Steady and Arnett or not.