Reviewed by Jonathan Reiss
According to the back cover of Dennis Cooper’s new book of short stories, Cooper is “the most dangerous writer in America.” What constitutes a dangerous writer? The Catcher in the Rye has been banned on and off by schools and libraries since its publication and was cited by Mark David Chapman as his reason for killing John Lennon, despite the fact that the book isn’t even about killing rock stars. In Ugly Man, the majority of Cooper’s pieces contain such “dangerous” themes as sexual violence and pedophilia, often both. Cooper visits the same subjects so frequently, in fact, that one begins to expect them to pop up within the opening pages of any of his stories. If Dennis Cooper is dangerous because of these awful obsessions, then what does that say about the literary world that dubbed him so, not to mention society and Dennis Cooper himself?
In “Jerk,” Ugly Man‘s first story, Cooper takes a daring look at a young person’s attempt at self-expression. In the story, David Brooks presents a puppet show broken up into sections. David himself is a character in his show, which he claims is based on his experiences as “a drug-addicted, psychotic, teen murderer in the early 70’s.” David’s friend Dean helps Wayne, an older mentor of sorts, murder young boys while David Films the scene. Dean is such a sycophant that he disguises his voice as the teen heartthrobs Wayne finds sexy and talks as the person they have just killed, purely for Wayne’s entertainment. In one scene, Dean talks to Wayne as the star of the TV show Flipper while pretending it is the corpse that is actually talking. The story switches back and forth from prose to puppet show, and from murder to macabre theatrical horseplay. What makes this story exceptional is Cooper’s ethereal understanding of the naivety of a young person attempting to express himself. In fact, Cooper’s understanding of young people in general is astounding, so much so that it’s all the more a bummer when he decides to rape and kill them.
“The Braniacs,” one of the standouts in the book, is about a group of skater kids who aren’t very good at skateboarding. Unlike the other kids at the skate park (who are dumb but actually talented at the sport), they analyze the people and things around them. They end up hanging out at the skate park fully aware that they suck, but proud that they know the meaning of the word “ironic.” Again, Cooper showcases an uncanny ability to put on the young intellectual poser’s suit of skin.
“The Anal Retentive Line Editor” is written from the point of view of a writer working on a generic gay porno and the young stickler that the publishing house assigned to edit it. As a result of the line editor’s hysterical attempts at fixing the writer’s descriptions of anal membranes and so forth, this is one of the funniest pieces in the book. The mere premise of the story–two characters communicating through the author-editor relationship–is extremely original and well-executed. Another story, “The Fifteen Worst Russian Gay Porn Sites,” is also pretty hysterical in that it is exactly what the title claims.
The final piece is a play called “The Ash Gray Proclamation.” It follows a young, sexually liberated guy named Mackerel who searches for heroin because a psychic has told him that one day he is going to overdose, even though he’s never used the stuff. Full of blatant pedophilia, Cooper loses me with this final piece, as with many of his others. It is not with a lack of intelligence of artistic openness that I fail to grasp Cooper’s motivation, but rather the fact that I firmly believe pedophilia a crime and furthermore that children are not in a position to consent to a sexual encounter. For this reason, I also won’t write off Cooper’s obsessive tendency to examine a topic so jarring and inherently wrong with a word as sexy and sweeping as “dangerous.”
The issue of child-adult sexual relationships is a tricky one to discuss. Some feel that those who believe in man-boy love are in line with homosexuals during the early days of Harvey Milk. Other find this notion abhorrent. William S. Burroughs visited the subject, but it’s not the basis of all of his books. Woody Allen had a sexual relationship with his adopted daughter and almost all his films are about men who cheat on their wives. Still, the level of victimization isn’t comparable. Even with the sex issue aside, Cooper is, when it comes down to it, writing about killing these young people, an issue which cannot be re-branded. While it is true that the best writing often comes from an author’s obsessions, Dennis Cooper’s are limiting. The strength in Cooper’s writing is vast and varied and his potential is better and further reaching than so much “danger” can or will take him.