Ugly Man: Stories

Like Kathy Acker and William Burroughs before him (both admirers), Dennis Cooper marries literary ambition and deviance

Book Review

Ugly Man: Stories

by 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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Book Reviews
<i>Presidio</i> by Randy Kennedy
Presidio by Randy Kennedy
For his debut novel, Kennedy creates a road story that portrays the harsh West Texas terrain beautifully and fills it with sympathetic characters.

Jay Trachtenberg, Sept. 14, 2018

Hunting the Golden State Killer in <i>I'll Be Gone in the Dark</i>
Hunting the Golden State Killer in I'll Be Gone in the Dark
How Michelle McNamara tracked a killer before her untimely death

Jonelle Seitz, July 20, 2018

More by Cindy Widner
Protect and Preserve
Protect and Preserve
Now that we've freaked out about Austin's unrelenting boom, can we figure out how to keep what's best about the city alive?

July 24, 2015

The Cartography of Home: Austin's Atlas
The Cartography of Home: Austin's Atlas
The Chronicle talks to Ann Armstrong of map project Austin's Atlas about the local preservation tool

July 24, 2015

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Ugly Man, Dennis Cooper, "Jerk", "The Worst (1960-1971)", "The Anal-Retentive Line Editor", "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"

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle