Ugly Man: Stories
Like Kathy Acker and William Burroughs before him (both admirers), Dennis Cooper marries literary ambition and deviance
Reviewed by Cindy Widner, Fri., June 19, 2009
Ugly Man: Storiesby Dennis Cooper
Harper Perennial, 272 pp., $13.99 (paper)
Ugly Man is a collection of disparate short stories, but it opens with a set-piece that gives us a decent shot at understanding author Dennis Cooper's obsessions in an overarching way. That first story, "Jerk," describes a performance piece that involves an audience reading a story/play about a performance – in this case, the performance of acts both heinous and ridiculous. That Cooper's subject matter here (teenage boys, death, ass, dismemberment) orbits the outer limits of even our sex-'n'-gore-drenched culture will surprise no one familiar with his oeuvre, but "Jerk" highlights the ways in which his work, while meant to be read (as opposed to, God knows, acted out), is essentially performative. Like Kathy Acker and William Burroughs before him (both admirers), Cooper marries literary ambition and deviance; his prose has the taut discipline and wanton impulses of a serial killer. Cooper's stories are more accessible and more repellent than either godhead's, but the hard shell of his writing denies his characters (and therefore us) the maelstrom of interiority found in the work of his postmodern predecessors. What we get are actions and dialogue – sometimes just the latter (the junkie one-act comedy "Oliver Twink") – the elements of performance, in other words. That emphasis provides opportunity for one-liners and hilarity, of course: Cooper is looser and funnier than in recent memory. He also mixes things up structurally – one is tempted to call his variety of approaches "formats," almost. "The Worst (1960-1971)" is a log of terrible things that happened to the narrator, one per year; "The Anal-Retentive Line Editor" plays out in brackets an awkward, attempted seduction by same; "One Night in 1979 I Did Too Much Coke and Couldn't Sleep and Had What I Thought Was a Million-Dollar Idea to Write the Definitive Tell-All Book About Glam Rock Based on My Own Personal Experience but This Is as Far as I Got" pretty much speaks for itself. If we get a few toss-offs ("The Fifteen Worst Russian Gay Porn Web Sites"), we are no less engaged or amused because of it. That's because what we also get – what we come to realize as the heartbreaking damage underlying the highly crafted minimalism and violent, sometimes frantic, activity amasses – is the idea of rapture in terrible brokenness; what we get is a strange sense of radical compassion.