The Bill from My Father: A Memoir by Bernard Cooper. Simon & Schuster, 2006; 240 pages; $24
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Bernard Cooper's new memoir is searing, soulful, and filled with uncommon psychological nuance and laugh-out-loud humor. Like Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life, Cooper's account of growing up and coming to terms with a bewildering father is a triumph of contemporary autobiography. Edward Cooper is a hard man to know. Dour and exuberant by turns, his moods dictate the always uncertain climate of the Cooper household. Of course as literary muses go, Edward Cooper seems an exceedingly unlikely one: balding, octogenarian, and partial to a polyester jumpsuit. But to his son he looms larger than life, an overwhelming and baffling presence who has long informed the themes of Bernard Cooper's writing.
As The Bill from My Father: A Memoir begins, Bernard and his father find themselves the last remaining members of the family. Edward is slowly sliding into dementia. As the author attempts, with his father's help, to forge a coherent picture of the Cooper family history, he discovers in the family records some peculiar documents and recalls a bill his father once sent him for his upbringing: an itemized invoice for two million dollars. Here, the author affords readers a painful glimpse into Edward's ambivalent regard for his son -- and establishes a springboard from which this deeply intelligent memoir takes flight.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Publishers Weekly: Cooper, whose Maps to Anywhere won the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award, crafts a brusquely tender elegy to his baffling father, Edward.... Edward was a blustery Los Angeles divorce lawyer with a flair for drama in and out of court. Circling from recent to distant past, Cooper recalls his utter bewilderment at his father's ill-advised imbroglios, which included an affair with his father's evangelical nurse and a lawsuit against the phone company.... Stirring yet never saccharine, this memoir excavates a fraught history without once collapsing into cliché. As much as Cooper seeks truth, he finally grows comfortable in the shadowy depths of his father's legacy. "By delving into the riddle of him, I hoped to know his mystery by finer degrees."
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
Bernard Cooper was born in Hollywood in 1951. Mr. Cooper and his longtime partner, Brian, live about a four-minute drive from the house in which Cooper grew up. Other than several years studying architecture in New York, Cooper has lived most of his life in Hollywood, he laughed. "I've lived here all my life pretty much. Actually people still say 'I didn't know anyone was from Hollywood.' It's understandable since Hollywood seems to be this kind of mecca that people migrate to -- but there are natives. I've always loved this, the California natives are called 'prune faces.' At least according to my mother, a very reliable source. But anyway, people are astonished if I tell them I'm from Hollywood. They say, 'I thought you were from New York or from the East Coast.' What's behind that is the kind of underlying prejudice that anyone born in Hollywood cannot put two words together.""How did you become so obsessed with your father as a literary subject?"
"I think it has to do with the fact that he was so unpredictable. If you grow up with someone and you can never predict how they will react from one minute to the next, what they will say, what turns their logic will take, you have to become obsessed."
"In order to stay alive."
"Exactly. It's, in a sense, to protect yourself, to protect your own sense of reality, your sense of the way the world works or doesn't work. I ended up as a kid paying lots of attention to my father because of this unpredictability. As time went on, there were so many periods of fondness and estrangement that I was either concerned with reconciling or with making peace with the fact that we were not speaking to each other. The fact that our relationship was so often in flux hooked me into overriding concern about him. Also, he was so tight-lipped about his past. So he was always a mystery.
"There are some books that come upon you fast and you take their measure quickly. It's like taking a snapshot and then you go with that. And there are other books that have just been building up, year after year after year. I've written about my father before but somehow the material in this book, and it's not the material, the approach felt like something I had saved up for -- not consciously, but that had been stored away my entire life."
Mr. Cooper's father always entertained at a restaurant called The Brass Pan. "Why?," I asked.
"It was The Brown Derby. Not the one that was in Hollywood, on Wilshire Boulevard. I guess The Brown Derby was a chain at some point, but it was for a very short time, it's had various incarnations. But even when it was no longer The Brown Derby it had everything that would be considered 'elegant' for a restaurant. Red leatherette, carpets, some walls with gold veined mirror, fake paintings of Degas dancers. What more could you ask for? You got your steak, your artificial flowers."
"What did you learn from your father about how to be a man?"
"Well, one of the things I definitely learned from him is strange. He would get offended if one wasn't wildly amused by his sense of humor. We would work at humoring him, but I have to say he was zany. That's something I liked about him very much. In some ways he didn't care if he made a fool of himself.
"He would do things that were inventive with his humor. I didn't write about this in the book because I had written about it before, but he had this running joke, which was whenever we'd go to a restaurant and the host or the hostess would say, 'Walk this way,' he would imitate the way he or she walked. He was a Three Stooges kind of guy. He loved that kind of humor -- crass, physical humor. I've come to love it myself. I used to think it was lowbrow humor."