Monday, July 6, 2009

Mini-review of Bill from My Father

“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes, they forgive them.”-- Oscar Wilde

Many memoirs have been published about fathers by their adult children. The ones that are worthwhile are those that reveal to the reader something significant about human nature as personified by the father, the child, or both. I didn’t find Cooper’s memoir one of these. I’m sure that hundreds of thousands of American men born in the 20th century have stories about their fathers as awful or worse than Cooper’s. It seems that Cooper wrote about his because he happens to be a professional writer.

I knew I wasn’t going to be enthralled by the book shortly after I began reading it. As portrayed, the father is a monster of pugnacity, vindictiveness, and heartlessness. No matter what he experienced in his past, his qualities are not those of a good husband, father, or friend. In his dotage the father is only exaggerating the misanthropy that has characterized his entire life.

Cooper is a schlemiel (a habitual bungler). I was surprised to learn he was 48 when his father died since his behavior, thinking, and speaking were so immature, irresponsible, and lacking in character throughout the memoir. Maybe his guilt for not loving his father enough induced him to avoid confrontation, attempt to placate unreasonable demands, and repeatedly return to the source of his torment in hope of better treatment, much like Charlie Brown’s constantly trying to kick the football held by Lucy.

As with the comic strip “Peanuts,” I found the antics of the impossible father and weakling son mildly amusing. In a more serious vein, the story of two seriously defective men acting out their domestic drama was pathetic. Toward the end of the book, the memoir had become sickening as exemplified by the following bits:

Cooper’s prevaricating and procrastinating to his father about the father’s stay in the hospital instead of gently telling him the truth
the father’s “bill” to Cooper for his upbringing and the father’s lawsuits against his daughters-in-law
Cooper’s vacillating thoughts about his father’s making good on his threat to sue over the “bill”: “he was my father, after all, the man who bore my ‘fiscal burden,’ and every son owes his father something.” p. 177
Cooper’s tepid reaction to his father’s numerous lawsuits against his sisters-in-law: “every time he mentioned the lawsuits, I felt sorry for my sisters-in-law, and my fondness for him was compromised.” p. 202
Cooper’s scruples about taking (“stealing”) the video about Hell from his dying father because he may “have denied him [his father] the opportunity to see the video for himself and make his own decision.” p. 194
Cooper’s reflecting on a photograph of his elderly father in Bermuda shorts and knee socks, observing that “he rivaled the gazers of the ancient world: Ulysses leaning from the prow of his ship; Penelope scanning the sea at dusk.” p. 199 (This about a man who has excised his new wife from the honeymoon photo and displays the defaced picture possibly as a warning to his latest love interest.)

I found two parts of the book touching: Cooper’s description of his brothers and the trip to the cemetery to “unveil” his father’s headstone. On finishing Cooper’s memoir maybe I had learned something about human nature after all. I had learned just how horrible a sado-masochistic father-son relationship can be.



DCSteve1441 said...

Walter, thanks again for compiling and sharing this "bill of particulars." I think it reflects the feelings most of the 10 Bookmen present for our discussion last week expressed.

Yet while I agree with many of your specific indictments, I do have a somewhat more sympathetic view of the memoir. Yes, the author and his father come across as seriously flawed men who, to a large degree, deserve each other. And as I noted during our discussion, the writing (and/or editing--hard to tell) leave a LOT to be desired.

Still, Cooper (fils) does a good job with many of the scenes, even if the whole adds up to less than the sum of the parts. In fact, as someone commented last week, it's a shame he didn't concentrate more on description instead of analysis, which is clearly not his strong suit.

Ultimately, I probably would not recommend this memoir (at least not without a lot of caveats). But I do think it was worth my time.

Cheers, Steve H.

Kenneth Jost said...

Without having completed the book, I expressed disappointment that the memoir dealt no more than incidentally with the author's coming out or his father's view of it. I now see that Cooper wrote about those issues in an earlier memoir, Truth Serum. I'm attaching Publishers Weekly's summary of that book; you'll see that the reviewer found things to like and things not to like in the book, just as our group found in Bill from My Father.

Here's the review of Truth Serum from Publishers Weekly:

"Cooper's memoir of growing up gay in Los Angeles has at its center the title piece, "Truth Serum," and it is Cooper at his best: exquisite, funny, wise and blessed with a novelist's gift for the epiphanic image. The sodium Pentothol and amphetamine "cocktail" administered to Cooper by his therapist so that he can reduce his attraction to men ironically empowers him to accept his homosexuality, which he does while huddling out of the rain in a doorway in Greenwich Village, newly emboldened to leave his girlfriend. Cooper is a likable sort, and very bright company, if a bit solipsistic (though he is often a solipsist in a sea of narcissists). But the aftereffects of the sodium Pentothol manage to pervade the whole book: it is endlessly chatty and rambling and makes the deadly assumption that an emotional life is necessarily interesting once expressed. And the corollary assumption, that such expression is heroic because it is in a homosexual key, grates. Still, Cooper's writing talent (he wrote the well-received novel A Year of Rhymes) and his alert and often graphic portrait of gay life among professionals in L.A. will find its appreciative readers."

Tim said...

Seven-to-the-seventh ways NOT to leave your father.

"Thinking my father may have accidentally transposed two of the seven [telephone] numbers, I tried a few permutations, but to follow this process through to its logical conclusion, I'd have to dial seven-to-the-seventh-power variations, whatever gargantuan number that was." (p.142)

There are several answers to Bernard Cooper's telephone problem (ranging from 42 to ten million) but none of them is "seven-to-the-seventh" or 823,543. I can't guess how he arrived at that number. I can only suppose he parroted some "n-to-the-nth" shibboleth his ear once came across. One needn't be terribly mathematical to know this number wouldn't apply ... only analytical, or to use his word, "logical."

"I was intent on repaying a kindness to the man who'd inspired me (in the Greek sense of breathed life into)...." (p.105)

Cooper clearly knows no Latin (and less Greek). How did he come up with this etymology? Once again one must suppose that he's throwing up something off the top of his brainpan, giving it no thought when he first writes it nor any more when he last reviews it. It's as though he had heard once that "inspire" etymologically means "to breathe life into" and casting about for some suitably impressive source language chose Greek over Latin. ("Good choice" — as the language waitron might ejaculate.)

How do these peccadilloes relate to the larger failings of The Bill from My Father? I think they point the way toward concluding that Cooper is neither very reflective nor critical (a fortiori self-critical). He's decidedly glib ( ... and entertaining! — I enjoyed the first half of his book and parts of the second, while I soldiered on to finish it). What's most lacking in Cooper's memoir of his relationship with his father is any mention of how his mother influenced that relationship! Indeed, it's as damning of Cooper's mentality as anything else to note that he never even considers that factor, much less elaborates on it.