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Emerging From the Scary Shadows of Human Behavior : Books: From the chaos of emotions surrounding Dennis Cooper, chronicler of the seedy side of life, came a story in which goodness takes hold.

October 09, 1994|CHARLOTTE INNES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Dennis Cooper has just one word for the life he lived while writing "Try," his current novel:

"Emotional."

His best friend, Casey, a young writer, was trying to kick heroin. Cooper spent more than a year taking care of him, offering comfort during the intensely painful withdrawal. Eventually Casey quit heroin, but then announced a need for independence and pulled away.

Cooper was still in shock when his lover of five years, Mark, also dumped him--largely because of the writer's devotion to heterosexual Casey. Cooper was left alone and in despair.

Recalling that time now, in the sunny afternoon quiet of his Los Feliz apartment, Cooper blows air through pursed lips and mutters with characteristic understatement, "It was hard."

Yet it was also a time of growth, he says. He transformed the chaos of his life into the beautifully structured, linguistically pulsating "Try," which he dedicated to Casey and which was universally praised by critics. He went to therapy for his depression, and he started thinking about "devotion and friendship, and why other people are important."

At this point, Cooper fans may be wondering if their favorite author is going soft in the head.

Can this be the same Dennis Cooper who wrote "The Herd," a novella exploring a serial murderer's mentality? And "Frisk," the chilling story of a man's obsession with dissecting teen-age boys? And "Closer," in which a beautiful gay teen-ager is used and abused by everyone around him?

Cooper, born and bred in Los Angeles, is best known for describing, in literary fashion, the kind of human behavior we read about with appalled fascination in the daily newspapers. Mutilation, necrophilia, rape, murder, pedophilia, drug addiction, porn videos are all staples in Dennis Cooperland.

Writer Edmund White calls Cooper's work--three novels, a book of short stories and several poetry collections--"the stuff of Jesse Helms' worst nightmares." And even though his fictional world is always unself-consciously gay, Cooper once received death threats from a group of gay activists because of the violence in "Frisk."

Cooper is the first to say that "Try" is different. In earlier works his characters yearn for tenderness but rarely get it. This time, "I guess I figured I'd try to acknowledge that tenderness or something," Cooper says. "For a long time, I felt like you couldn't really trust anybody. But through various things, including this friendship with the guy who was on heroin, I think I learned a lot about that kind of stuff."

Set in the San Gabriel Valley, "Try" focuses on the gentle, platonic relationship between two teen-agers: Calhoun, the heterosexual junkie, and Ziggy, the hyperactive, sexually abused, possibly bisexual son of two gay men who adopted him when he was young. Among the minor characters are two girls--a first for Cooper, who says, "My world is opening up more."

Like most of Cooper's work, the book represents a struggle between the powerless and the powerful--sweet teen-agers versus exploitative adults. Yet the adults, truly evil in Cooper's earlier works, are comically absurd in "Try."

They include Ziggy's Uncle Ken, a maker of porno flicks whose accidental killing of a boy turns into a farce, and Roger, one of Ziggy's "dads." Roger is a fatuous rock journalist who gets his hilariously pompous style from Cooper's own early, fake-aesthetic writing about rock music.

The book's most powerful force turns out to be goodness, suggested between the lines of the semi-articulate yet rhythmically beautiful language of Cooper's damaged adolescents.

Dennis Cooper in person is surprisingly reminiscent of his fictional youths. Pale, lanky, unshaven, dressed in T-shirt and jeans, his words are liberally interlaced with "um," "er," "like" and "you know." The youthful stutter recedes when he's talking about ideas or literature, otherwise he might be an earnest, self-effacing 16-year-old trapped inside a 41-year-old body and topped with graying hair.

A recent Publishers Weekly profile, although laudatory, suggested that Cooper may be trying "to come to grips with whatever trauma he experienced at that age."

"Maybe." Cooper thinks hard, blue eyes intense. "I don't know, I don't know. . . . I don't think I ever matured or something."

In his heart, he is still the youthful rebel who was thrown out of the Boy Scouts for having long hair and expelled from Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada in the 11th grade--ostensibly for having a low grade-point average but also for drug-taking and being openly gay, he says.

Such experiences left him permanently suspicious of authority and conventional morality. If he has a code of behavior, "it's an embarrassingly simplistic thing, that people shouldn't exploit other people." He believes that "adulthood is a corrupt state" and he is moved by young people, especially young writers like Casey, because of their idealism and their uncompromising originality.

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