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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : Fathers, Sons and a Brief Insight Into the Male Psyche : BIG AS LIFE: Stories About Men by Rand Richards Cooper ; Dial Press $21.95, 336 pages

August 17, 1995|CHRIS GOODRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a story called "The Hoax," a high school English teacher learns that one of his favorite former students, Jill, is coming to visit him at a summer graduate teaching program in New Hampshire. The teacher, who narrates the story, is thrown into turmoil; he remembers being infatuated with Jill the previous school year, feels uncomfortably pressured by his longtime girlfriend to get married, and has enviously watched his summer roommate, Elliot, bed every woman in sight.

The teacher, both thrilled and terrified at Jill's imminent arrival, attempts to get himself under control: "We are like cars," he tells himself, thinking of teachers' relationships with students, "getting ourselves to our destinations by means of raging explosions, the very power of which lies in their containment."

Emotional containment--and especially the loss of it--lies at the heart of "Big as Life," a second story collection (after "The Last to Go") by Rand Richards Cooper. These are indeed, as the subtitle indicates, stories about men--the kind of men, as Cooper writes in "A Soldier Loyal and True," who "proudly freed themselves from art and religion, from tenderness itself, consigning the whole load of it like so much laundry to the women in their lives" until circumstances dictate otherwise.

Most of Cooper's men lead blinkered existences, and know it, but can do little to change themselves; seeing the world in terms of sports metaphors, of loyalty to alma maters and the efficacy of brute force, they are victims of social circumstance. Victims? No, not really: quotidian casualties of adulthood, more like, happiest when they can fully control life . . . even if such control is counterproductive and counterfeit.

Sons and fathers abound in these stories, with fathers often forcing sons to learn the hard rules of life. In the title story, Dad tells his 10-year-old about playing college hoops with Larry Bird, and can't wriggle out of the snowballing lie when Bird comes to town for a personal appearance; the boy's mother doesn't understand the father's embellishment, of course, having "come from a family where everything worked; one that had money, that could afford to tell the truth."

In "The Way Things Always Happen," 13-year-old Paul has "loaned" $20 to a panhandling Haitian, and Paul's father seems to relish exposing his son's innocence; he bets Paul will never get his money back, and upon winning the wager days later, goads the boy into a lie.

In "Faith in the System," Andy realizes at summer camp what he doesn't dare comprehend at home: that you can't judge people by appearance, that you don't have to be the person your family believes you to be.

Cooper's men are attractive, sympathetic characters, often because they are willing to recognize their mistakes, to see that revelation is frequently predicated on error.

That's certainly true in "The Hoax," for it turns out that the narrator has been tricked--that Elliot has invented Jill's visit out of whole cloth, has sent the narrator into emotional crisis in revenge for a prank in which a group of teachers, including the narrator, taped one of Elliot's liaisons. Looking for sophomoric, malicious fun, the narrator inadvertently bares his own fragility and self-delusion, the feelings he has refused to admit even to himself.

"The Hoax" is one of a handful of memorable stories in this collection, and starkly outlines the adolescence that seems to run through the American man, a trait that can be both irresistible and hazardous, endearing and shameful.

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