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."
"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.'"