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Truth and Consequences

TRUTH SERUM,\o7 By Bernard Cooper (Houghton Mifflin: $21.95; 225 pp.)\f7

April 21, 1996|Mark Merlis | Mark Merlis' "American Studies" (Penguin) won the 1995 Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for first fiction and the Ferro-Grumley award for gay literature

If the book has a unifying theme, it is the shifting relationship of the gay boy and later man to his own body. "Of all the diminishments of living in the closet," Cooper writes, "one of the most insidious is the way it robs a man of his body; lust is denied again and again until the instrument of lust is itself denied." Cooper recounts his halting attempts to recover his body, from the Day-Glo shirt he makes his mother buy him and that strikes him in retrospect as "an early assertion of my homosexuality" to the day he drags his skinny, round-shouldered self into Matt Morris' seedy gym. The body that is reclaimed and reinvented by the adult Cooper is lost again with the coming of HIV--"the physiques we tried to strengthen and perfect became increasingly alien to us, capable of every failure and betrayal"--until at last his lover's body grows "indiscriminate and thin, ready to admit the world."

As Cooper moves on to his adult experience--several doomed affairs, at last a happy marriage darkened by his partner's illness--the book seems to grow thinner. Partly, perhaps, just because the evocation of the recent past is not such a magic trick. Other writers have covered much of the same material; a generic taste creeps in. As if, having clambered out of the well of his childhood isolation, he has gained community at the price of particularity. There remain powerful moments, as when Cooper is sitting at the HIV testing center, having just heard his negative results and waiting for his partner to come out of the next cubicle. He realizes suddenly that it is taking too long, his partner has been in with the counselor much longer than he was, and his world is transformed into one in which he must eventually learn "to let go of both hopelessness and hope."

Still, there is something perfunctory about the latter part of the book, a certain amount of coasting on verbiage, and also a paradoxical feeling that Cooper's memory of the recent past is blurred, needs to be helped along a bit: Some of the jokes are purloined, the dialogue a little creaky and stilted, the prose sometimes flatly expository.

What happens gives some clue to the magic of the earlier sections. Cooper, examining his younger self, really does adopt the posture of the idiot savant: wide-eyed, reciting without judging or interpreting. Perhaps the reduced psychic distance as he approaches the present, with its gathering losses, makes this stance harder to maintain. But his voice remains unique and his series of memoirs an indispensable map to forgotten places in the life of our generation.

* BERNARD COOPER will participate, along with AMY TAN, in a writers' discussion entitled "Memories and Writing" at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival today at 3 p.m.

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