Truth and Consequences

Mark Merlis' "American Studies" (Penguin) won the 1995 Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for first fiction and the Ferro-Grumley award for gay literature

It is like this, growing up gay:

"I can't, to this day, imagine what childhood would have been like without the need for secrecy, and the constant vigilance secrecy requires. The elaborate strategies, psychic acrobatics. You ache for a way to make sense of your nature. You dive headlong into the well of yourself. And no matter what plans you hatch, promises you make, no matter what you do to erase your desire, you feel incorrigible and aberrant before you even know the meaning of words."

Bernard Cooper has made it his vocation to tell the secrets of his childhood, drawing up from the well of himself memories recounted with a dispassionate thoroughness that is a kind of bravery. "Truth Serum" is his third book, following a volume of essays, "Maps to Anywhere," and the patently autobiographical novel, "A Year of Rhymes." Although his new volume is labeled "memoirs," the term might apply to the body of his work.

He serves up small episodes from his life, negligible incidents that are really an armature on which to hang details--sights, sounds, smell--recalled with almost improbable precision. These sensory memories carry all the thematic weight of his work, displacing character or action. Sometimes he forces them to yield up small, almost abashed epiphanies. But the real point is the magic trick of recollection and evocation. In "Train of Thought" (an essay unhappily based on the mistaken premise that this phrase, used by Hobbes and Locke, has something to do with railroads), he describes an idiot savant who watches an endless passing freight train and can then recite the names and numbers of all the cars. This is Cooper's gift as well.

He captures the texture of life in postwar America, especially the 1950s and '60s, with astonishing power and economy. Coping with his melancholy mother and mercurial father in a suburban house, eating out, riding the bus, going to the department store: It is all perfectly remembered and beautifully written. And "Truth Serum" is so exact a rendition of what it was like to stumble toward self-acceptance in this period that I could swear he cribbed all the incidents from my own life: looking up the names for yourself in the dictionary, hiding the porn collection and then destroying it as an act of renunciation, walking the tightrope of concealment and daring near-disclosure with straight friends, going to the shrink for the cure (defined as a reduction in the frequency and intensity of the unwanted homosexual impulses).

This life, recollected, can seem almost farcical. Cooper mines the comedy without forgetting that, for the boy who lived it, every social misstep or silly remark was accompanied by terror, as if each episode of "Leave It to Beaver" were to end with the arrival of the Furies.

Some of the childhood material is partly recycled from his earlier books, but not annoyingly so: The slight overlaps, incidents reiterated in new contexts, remind us that we all lead several lives at once, sentences served concurrently.

Each memory takes on its color from the memories placed next to it. (M.F.K. Fisher's work, an edifice of recycling, gives something of the same effect.) In particular, the picture of his parents grows richer each time we encounter them. The portrait of his aging father in "Picking Plums," though it strongly resembles a similar essay in "Maps to Anywhere," takes on a new subplot here, the lonesome dinners and halting conversations of father and son shaded by the unspoken secrets of their respective love lives.

When Cooper at length comes out, his father responds to the anticlimactic revelation with a tossed-off boyhood anecdote that is resonant and healing, a perfect example of the treasures Cooper can unearth when he doesn't work too hard to gin the small and personal into the universal.

One character who does not reappear in "Truth Serum" is the older brother whose death from leukemia during Cooper's childhood was the centerpiece of the two earlier books. His existence is not even hinted at; a reader of "Truth Serum" would assume Cooper was an only child.

One can see why Cooper would not wish to revisit this story a third time, but the omission has consequences. His parents' grief turns here into some sort of causeless angst. And Cooper's own narrative of what he has called "a lifetime of sexual reckonings" is left incomplete when it fails to reckon with the innocent yet taboo-skirting feeling for the brother's body, in health and sickness, that he has depicted so subtly elsewhere.

If the book has a unifying theme, it is the shifting relationship of the gay boy and later man to his own body. "Of all the diminishments of living in the closet," Cooper writes, "one of the most insidious is the way it robs a man of his body; lust is denied again and again until the instrument of lust is itself denied." Cooper recounts his halting attempts to recover his body, from the Day-Glo shirt he makes his mother buy him and that strikes him in retrospect as "an early assertion of my homosexuality" to the day he drags his skinny, round-shouldered self into Matt Morris' seedy gym. The body that is reclaimed and reinvented by the adult Cooper is lost again with the coming of HIV--"the physiques we tried to strengthen and perfect became increasingly alien to us, capable of every failure and betrayal"--until at last his lover's body grows "indiscriminate and thin, ready to admit the world."

As Cooper moves on to his adult experience--several doomed affairs, at last a happy marriage darkened by his partner's illness--the book seems to grow thinner. Partly, perhaps, just because the evocation of the recent past is not such a magic trick. Other writers have covered much of the same material; a generic taste creeps in. As if, having clambered out of the well of his childhood isolation, he has gained community at the price of particularity. There remain powerful moments, as when Cooper is sitting at the HIV testing center, having just heard his negative results and waiting for his partner to come out of the next cubicle. He realizes suddenly that it is taking too long, his partner has been in with the counselor much longer than he was, and his world is transformed into one in which he must eventually learn "to let go of both hopelessness and hope."

Still, there is something perfunctory about the latter part of the book, a certain amount of coasting on verbiage, and also a paradoxical feeling that Cooper's memory of the recent past is blurred, needs to be helped along a bit: Some of the jokes are purloined, the dialogue a little creaky and stilted, the prose sometimes flatly expository.

What happens gives some clue to the magic of the earlier sections. Cooper, examining his younger self, really does adopt the posture of the idiot savant: wide-eyed, reciting without judging or interpreting. Perhaps the reduced psychic distance as he approaches the present, with its gathering losses, makes this stance harder to maintain. But his voice remains unique and his series of memoirs an indispensable map to forgotten places in the life of our generation.

* BERNARD COOPER will participate, along with AMY TAN, in a writers' discussion entitled "Memories and Writing" at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival today at 3 p.m.

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