Life's Absurdities, Pain, Warmth and Humor

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A journalist recently called Bernard Cooper to interview him about "Truth Serum," his acclaimed new collection of 13 "memoirs." In somber tones, the man asked after Cooper's lover, Brian Miller, whose battle with AIDS figures in the book. Cooper had to think for a minute.

"Brian, at that very moment, was out in the yard, ripping down vines and pulling up trees. And I thought, 'Well, he's absolutely fine. In fact he's re-landscaping the yard as we speak!' "

Thanks to the roller coaster nature of the disease, Miller--though sick--feels well and active. It makes the anxious inquiries somewhat jarring. Still, Cooper says, "There's something about the concern this piece has generated that is really moving to me. I mean, I love the man, and that people who don't know him care about him in this way is an amazing and wonderful thing."

This mix of warmth and humor, this sense of life's absurdity in the face of profound emotional pain, is typical of Cooper and his work. Take into account too his playful, poetic, beautifully choreographed prose, and that's enough to place him on the cutting edge of essay writing, says Robert Atwan, editor of the 10-year-old Best American Essays series (Houghton Mifflin), which has published two of Cooper's essays.

Atwan groups Cooper, 44, with such literary icons as Annie Dillard and Albert Goldbarth, whose honest, reflective writing has defined the genre. Though the autobiographical "Truth Serum" (Houghton Mifflin) has come out in a year when memoirs are hot, it's in a very different league from the flood of tell-all books or even more literary works that, Atwan says, are sometimes "suffocating" in their inability to move beyond "I."

For Cooper tries to make sense not of one individual life but of all our lives--and he does it "without saying 'poor me,' " says Ilena Silverman, senior editor at GQ. She edited Cooper's work for seven years at Harper's, the original forum for three of "Truth Serum's" essays, including the O. Henry Award-winning title piece.

Critics say Cooper achieves the distance of fiction by refracting complicated truths through ordinary people, everyday affairs and the minutiae of the world around him. This is as true of the hard-to-categorize, essayistic prose poems of "Maps to Anywhere" (University of Georgia Press, 1990)--which won the 1991 PEN/Hemingway Award for fiction--as it is of his novel, "A Year of Rhymes" (Viking, 1993), which focuses on his childhood in Los Feliz and the death of a brother, and now "Truth Serum," which tracks Cooper's growing awareness as a gay man.

Some have criticized "Truth Serum's" three newest pieces--on a teenage crush, on dating in the age of AIDS, and on Miller's battle with HIV--as less reflective than his image-laden earlier work. Yet even those critics admit to the visceral delineations of grief, loss and desire, and (something new for Cooper) their fast-paced narrative.

"There definitely is a kind of opening up in my work," Cooper says, his fashionably close-cropped hair and stylish combat boots slightly at odds with his intellectual habit of weighing every word, though his companionable laughter softens the contradiction.

"In the earlier pieces I was flexing my writing muscles, exploring images I'd always loved from the visual arts. But more and more what became challenging to me was to write close to the bone. One of the factors that really compelled me through this book was a sense of unease I felt, getting close to things that have been difficult to express in my life, or hidden in some way."

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It all goes back to his 1950s childhood, he says, sitting cross-legged on the living room rug in the Los Feliz ranch house he shares with Miller, a 45-year-old therapist, and their dog, Zack, a lively black-and-white Labrador mix. (The house where Cooper grew up is barely three miles way, and his 90-year-old father still lives there.) Fittingly, we are surrounded by pseudo-1950s furniture. It has nothing do with nostalgia, Cooper says. But clearly that decade is the wellspring for his work.

Part of it was growing up gay.

"For all the pain and confusion involved in understanding that your longings are not sanctioned by the world," he says, he's come to recognize that being gay made him "look at certain things in skewed or odd or interesting ways."

"Truth Serum" shows us Cooper at 10, insisting that his mother buy him a bright yellow shirt that "called the nature of dress into question" and made solid his nascent homosexual yearnings. And as a dreamy 13-year-old, he tried to burn his stash of male pornography in his parents' garage, only to watch in horror as pieces of charred paper male torso floated down all over his father's work bench--thus learning that you can never hide the truth.

His second-generation Russian Jewish parents with their "Jewish diction" and "ethnic, not religious, Jewish sensibility" were also a big influence.

"My parents would phrase a lot of their statements in the form of questions, like, 'This steak is good?' Everything is a matter to be pondered about. Every question leads to more questions. It was not only the way they spoke but their world view too."

His "laugh or drown" reflexive humor also comes from them, especially his "sense that everyone suffers and that suffering is really funny as well as tragic."

Even so, Cooper says, it was the family silence rather than the talk that spurred his imagination--and his honesty.

"I think my parents wanted to sever themselves from the past. They wanted to be full-fledged Americans."

Despite material success, however, they never felt they had made it, he says. His work is informed by a subtle sense of melancholy that stems from his mother's unfulfilled yearnings for something, and the depression that weighed down his joke-loving divorce attorney father.

Hardest to deal with and then to write about were the family deaths. His mother died of heart disease when he was 25. He also lost all three of his older brothers, two to cancer--Robert, when Cooper was 9, and Gary, when he was 23. Ron died of heart failure three years ago.

"I don't want to get out the old violin, but my sense of losing males with whom I have this deep bond is almost, at this point, unbearable," he says.

Only language and the sense of order it can bring has helped him.

"I dislike immensely the notion that despair breeds art, but I think it was precisely my heightened sense of mortality, my outrage at the fact of transience--blink and someone, something is gone--that spurred me, finally, to do my best work."

Writing is an arduous profession, Cooper says. Coffee helps, and writing early in the morning. But every day he is reminded that "the right words are hard-won."

Without question, the most difficult task he's ever set himself is the essay "If and When," about his lover of 13 years, a sunny Canadian who has been living with AIDS for three years. After the diagnosis, Cooper couldn't write for months. What finally helped was the thought that an essay would be "a way of honoring Brian."

Cooper set out "to represent Brian's experience without romanticizing him," to chart the unsharable nature of suffering, the black humor, the despair, the surprising benefits of a support group, the ebb and flow of desire in the midst of daily fears, the inevitable stresses on their relationship and the love that somehow survives.

Says Miller: "It really touched me. I cried." He adds. "I'm totally convinced that having Bernard in my life has made all the difference." (Cooper is HIV-negative and living proof of safer sex practices, Miller says.)

The two men try to live in the present. Miller sees his clients. Cooper is beginning work on his next project, a book of short stories. He also teaches at Antioch College.

He can't think beyond the phrase "if and when Brian dies . . ." he says.

Yet significantly "Truth Serum" ends not with a death sentence but with "Tone Poem," a life-affirming piece about the transmutation of pain and memory into art and a kind of acceptance of life's chaos:

"Sometimes, at dawn, I burst through the seam between wakefulness and sleep like an acrobat through a paper hoop. There I am in my life again, eyes wide. I listen to birds fret in the trees, my bedroom walls ticking with warmth. The names of friends come back to me, things my parents said long ago, a tentative list of things to do, worries as stark and plaintive as prayers. Semiquavers, naturals, flats. Notes of a mounting crescendo."

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