"He must have worked hard to get a law degree and start up a practice."
"Well, he did. He did. He got his law degree, it turns out, in Oklahoma, which for reasons I'm not clear is called the easiest state to get your license in. But he did work hard, and it's funny because I think a lot of what happened to my father comes under the category of 'occupational hazard,' like his weariness with the way people will exploit or deceive one another. It was good for him as an attorney. It was detrimental to him as a father. Traits that served him well as a lawyer were later in life magnified into a kind of rationality or paranoia, suspicion, attitudes that I think got him in trouble."
Mr. Cooper's father died in 2000. "Do you miss him?"
"It's funny -- the longest period of estrangement came close to his death. I have to say that I was hurt by this three-year estrangement, during which time he sold his house and moved into his trailer with his quote 'nurse' unquote. It had been so hard for me that I think I had gotten to the point where I was too wary to ever get close to him again. I have to say that -- this is hard to admit -- but when his behavior took a turn for the worse, when it became qualified as 'geriatric dementia,' in a funny way, it was a relief that he, at that point, didn't expect anything from me. He was also in a state where he was suspicious of anyone that tried to help him. 'Trying to help him' automatically qualified you for suspicion. There was a kind of remoteness between us at the end."
I said that I felt "there's something Beckett-like about the book -- the whole world projected on this strange old man in this polyester jumpsuit with stains on it."
"Let me back up a second. One of my deepest fears and most difficult reckonings is that I'm afraid of being alone and old. I think it's a very primal, basic fear. I've been very afraid that I'll end up like my father. I'm also trying to accept the fact that in many, many ways I am exactly like my father and the kind of conflict -- the conflict between those two states -- is a conflict that fueled the book. It's a hard thing to describe because -- well it's a hard thing to do because in order to talk about a parent..."
"The parent has to be dead."
"Exactly. You have to stand back and look at them objectively. But at the same time, I was feeling that every time I stood back to look at him objectively, what I would notice was myself. So it was this strange kind of understanding which I'd pretty much been resisting all my life that I am prone to the same irrationality, the same frailties, the same fears. A part of me used to look at that in him and think, 'My God, he's suffered so much loss, how can he not be fighting tooth and nail for some connection to other people, and specifically to me.' Because I was open to a connection.
"On the other hand, I've experienced losses in my life. I can understand how one gets to the point where you can think, 'No more, I can't take it.' And in a sense even do something to make the loss preemptive. Where you intentionally cut yourself off from people in order not to have to bear the pain of losing people."
"He was such a Beckett character."
"I had not thought about that, but you're absolutely right. There is a kind of existential impoverishment in his character.
"One of the things that was strange about my father, and this was true ever since I can remember, is that I would often talk about what an eccentric guy he was, and he always -- at least in the shelter of the house and within the family -- showed his more brooding irrational side.
"If I ever brought people home -- a friend in whom I'd confided about my father and his moodiness -- they would meet this jovial guy. That remained true all my life. Except with people who met him more than once. They eventually got it. The first time you met him you might be surprised. And you might think, 'Oh, Bernie wrote a nice novel here,' but the second or third time you would have realized that it is a memoir.
"One of the things that was very strange about this book is I knew that even after he died, the story would not be finished and the book would go on. It seemed that even if it wasn't about actual repercussions of his death, there are these psychic repercussions. The pebble may be down at the bottom of the pond, but the waves are still rippling ever outward."
I asked about the title.
"The title comes from one of the earliest chapters I wrote because I didn't write the book in order at the beginning. But I later put it into an order, got an idea of how it might be structured and wrote the rest of the book according to that structure. So that was kind of a seminal piece in the book, a chunk of the book. The other thing is that it seemed to be not only about my father rebelling against the world by not paying his bills, but also about what a son owes his father and vice-versa. It's about debt in different kinds of ways. There have been so many times where after my father hasn't spoken to me or has said something weird, I would say to Brian, 'But he's my father.'"