At the command of God, Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac. Bernard Cooper's father merely presented him with a $2 million invoice for child-rearing services. And God had nothing to do with it.
Cooper will appear on a panel, moderated by Jewish Journal Religion Editor Amy Klein, at the West Hollywood Book Fair this Sunday. He says that "The Bill from My Father," his latest book, is perhaps the most conventional of his three memoirs, in that it follows a more "chronological narrative," the story of his relationship with his cantankerous father.
Cooper's first book, "Maps to Anywhere," was less a memoir than "a collection of very brief essays," he says, covering subjects as varied as the House of the Future at Disneyland to encounters with eccentric neighbors. The second memoir, "Truth Serum," was "more cohesive thematically" in that it dealt with the author's experience of growing up gay in Los Angeles.
The art critic for Los Angeles magazine for the past six years, Cooper considers himself primarily a nonfiction writer, although he has also written a book of short stories, "Guess Again," and a novel, "A Year of Rhymes." Of fiction writing, he says, "I really admire the form." It provides him with a "respite from writing about myself," although he is quick to add that even his nonfiction books are not so much about himself as they are about "personal experiences" as told "through a persona of self," in which he shows the "world around me, not me."
Writing "The Bill from My Father" gave Cooper a chance to "revisit the past and interweave some form of insight."
It also gave him a chance to examine his memory and "the way it can capture and distort experience." Not only does he understand that memory can play tricks on us, he seems to relish being a trickster himself, a prestidigitator of prose. He clues us in to his legerdemain in the acknowledgments when he thanks his agents at International Creative Magicians.
Yet it appears that Cooper gets his real gift for magic from his father, who, he writes, spoke with the "illusion of candor" and dressed "like a quick-change artist" in his polyester jumpsuit.
The trickery starts in the opening chapter, with the story of his father's first words -- words that are not what they seem. The deception continues with the story of the decapitated chicken, which begins its life as a walking purse before its avian heritage is revealed; the story of his father's second wife, which includes a kicker about her racial identity, which we learn only after an extended discussion between father and son; and finally, the story of his father's epitaph, an epitaph as open to interpretation as the Mona Lisa. Cooper says that "one of the most difficult aspects of writing is not just talking about or recreating experience" but doing so in a way "that allows the reader to live it."
Noting that "surprise was a primary aspect of my relationship with my father," Cooper says, "I want the reader to feel the same surprise I did, especially with my father... I'm interested in causing a sense of astonishment in the reader."
While the reader may be astonished by the narrative tricks, the real astonishment comes from Cooper's nonpareil prose, his unique metaphors ("They shifted into Yiddish with the relief of people removing a pair of tight shoes"), his discerning sense of smell ("I smelled a medicinal odor tinged with rotting fruit: perfumed embalming fluid").
Consider this description of his father's bed, which becomes practically a central character in the book: "Inner springs coil when pressure is applied, twanging each time we shift in or sleep or flail to find the ideal position, searching for the lost aquatic comfort we knew long ago in our mother's womb." Later in the paragraph, he adds, "Microscopic colonies of mites wait for the falling manna of our skin. Dreams sweep across the surface like seasons."
Cooper transforms the bed, where, according to family lore, he was conceived, into a primordial ecosystem, an ocean of the subconscious. Although the book may be about the birth of his father, "as if his history began the moment I perceived him," writes Cooper, there is no denying that the book is also about death.
The author discusses the deaths of his three older brothers and mother, all of whom died many years ago, leaving Cooper devoid of family for a significant period of time, except for his aging father -- a divorce lawyer, who as an octogenarian was suing some of his caregivers, the spouses of his deceased sons, his next-door neighbors and many others. As Cooper writes, "My worth as a son was verified daily by the absence of a summons to appear in court."
It is this humor that may be the grandest astonishment of all about Cooper and his writing.
"Humor is absolutely essential not only in my writing but also in my outlook," he says. Cooper "sees things often as being absurd and funny, maybe especially when they're difficult." He suggests that this is a "somewhat Jewish quality." "Like a lot of bar mitzvah boys," Cooper says, he "learned the whole thing phonetically." Even if he has never been particularly religious, Cooper says that he grew up "profoundly, ethnically Jewish."
As a young boy, he listened to his father tell jokes by Henny Youngman and other Golden Age comics. He says that his father "had a very vaudevillian sense of humor. He was extremely mercurial, capable of wonderful flights of humor and capable of rages and brooding." That combination may not be unusual. What was unusual about his father was "the rapidity with which those moods could change."
Despite losing all his biological family members as well as his partner of 24 years, who died this April, Cooper retains his optimism and his humor. What is he working on now?
An essay about a forum in which artists and non-artists make presentations about anything to do with electricity, such as "recreations of hot-air balloons," Cooper says.
What is the name of this organization? "Dorkbot."
Bernard Cooper will appear on the panel, "It's My Life: On Writing The Memoir," from 2:30-3:30 pm on Sept. 17, at the West Hollywood Book Fair, West Hollywood Park, 647 N. San Vicente Blvd.
For more information, visit www.weho.org/bookfair.
"The Bill From My Father" by Bernard Cooper (Simon & Schuster, $24).