Book Review: Readings

Bernard Cooper


Guess Again: Short Stories

by Bernard Cooper

Simon & Schuster, 208 pp., $21

Two characters from one of the stories in Bernard Cooper's collection, Guess Again, engage in the following exchange at a tempestuous dinner party: "Things come together in ways you'd never expect," one says, to which the other replies, "And fall apart in ways you'd never expect." These statements describe exactly what occurs in Cooper's stories, and the result is a collection that is entertaining, tender, and full of characters whose lives change in unexpected ways.

A pregnant young woman named Laura in "What to Name the Baby" travels in a Winnebago with her father, Frank, and his gay lover, Booth. She feels the absence of the father of her child (he walked out on her when he found out she was pregnant) all the more when she sees firsthand the love her father has found with Booth. Their love and happiness baffle her, because "being in love ... seemed incompatible with happiness, since love carried with it the constant threat of separation." The story takes a few wacky turns, but these moments never undermine the heart of the story -- how love arrives in many surprising forms. The characters in this story are among the many in the collection who have lost or are looking for ever-elusive love.

Cooper also has a fondness for placing his characters in oddball situations. In "Hunters and Gatherers," the protagonist finds himself at a dinner party thrown by a Mormon couple. The wife had wanted to meet some of her supposedly straight husband's gay friends, but the party ends in disaster; ultimately the wife can't stand to be around gays because she says she can't stop thinking about what they do in bed: "That's the problem with homosexuals," she says. And in "A Man in the Making," a teenage boy feigns sickness to stay home from church. While his family is away, he grabs his brother's G.I. Joe doll (he calls him "Guy Joe"), strips it naked, melts some wax, and crafts the doll an erection so he can jerk off to the miniature bastion of manliness. Too bad his family makes an unexpected return home while he's in the middle of his erotic ritual.

Sometimes all these wacky situations threaten to turn the stories into nothing more than amusing set-pieces. But amidst all this zaniness, darker and sadder moments lurk. A number of the men in the stories have either lost a lover to AIDS or have AIDS themselves. As one character observes, "So many of my old lovers have died, and so many single men are symptomatic, that grief and desire have come to seem the same." To Cooper's credit, the serious moments never become maudlin; instead they enrich and lend the stories a needed weight. The strongest stories here mix humor and genuine feeling into narratives that will always have a reader guessing where they are headed.

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Guess Again: Short Stories, Bernard Cooper

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