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IN BRIEF

Fiction

March 08, 1992|MICHAEL HARRIS

WRONG by Dennis Cooper (Grove Weidenfeld: $17.95; 173 pp.) . A young gay man at his date's house sees a table "lined with spiked dildos, all lengths of whips . . . branding irons." The torture paraphernalia looks "like a game," but he thinks with curious passivity: "Whether it wound up that way or not was beside the point."

As he lets himself be handcuffed and gagged, he imagines "that his father was hugging him. . . . It had something to do with a gesture that couldn't be downgraded or reinterpreted, made into some . . . joke. Someone who made him feel this all-important must be intrigued at least."

The young man is, in fact, beaten to death. Then his spirit, rising out of his mangled body, reflects on "the beauty of dead kids. . . . Everything they ever did seems incredibly moving in retrospect."

This passage, squeezing a little sentiment out of what would seem to be irredeemable degradation and violence, is typical of Dennis Cooper ("Frisk," "The Tenderness of the Wolves"). It's also pivotal. It appears in the title story, about halfway through this collection of short fiction, set mostly in Los Angeles, that Cooper has written over the past decade. And it points to the direction in which his writing--claustrophobic, death-obsessed, soaked in the seamy aesthetic of porn--has evolved.

The earlier stories, including one in which we enter the mind of a Jeffrey Dahmer-type serial killer, rely heavily on shock. But just as, in another story, a friend's death exposes a punk rocker's nihilism as sham, the real-life terrors of AIDS have turned Cooper into a mourner. His wiped-out hustlers, addicts and X-rated actors have become "incredibly moving in retrospect," even while still alive.

"Wrong" is formally adventurous, if uneven in quality. It gives no clue as to whether Cooper can write about anything except his chosen sub-subculture: a recurring handful of characters and the narrow world of their loneliness, fears and cravings. But the folly of trying to censor such work is obvious: It would mean a world lost.

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