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Weekly Alibi Tales from the Dark Side

By Jeffrey Lee

AUGUST 25, 1997:  Some writers cast a wide net and haul in a dizzying range of insights. Others--think of William S. Burroughs--go over the same ground from one book to the next, turning their particular obsessions over and over, taking them apart, putting them back together, until some new facet is exposed, some new detail brought into focus. They're like Monet doing 16 paintings of the same haystack. They're more deep than broad, and their aim is to get to the bottom of things.

Dennis Cooper has been treating a highly specific constellation of ideas in his poems, stories and novels since the late '70s: the gloomier aspects of West Coast youth culture and the disaffection that accompanies his haunted, articulate people into dark pursuits. Druggy self-hatred, pedophilia and extreme sexual violence preoccupy him. Over the years, he has dug so deep into these preoccupations that he has laid open the muscle and bone. But as a novelist, his concerns are profoundly literary. He is an experimenter of amazing skill and conviction, and his narratives are some of the most complex and inventive this side of the European and Latin American avant-garde.

As in Cooper's most notorious novel, Frisk, "Dennis" is the narrator here. He's a skillful and even a devious one, pulling out every trick. Taken at face value, Dennis' story is about his involvement with doomed, heroin-addicted Chris, his devotion to the more ethereal, hippie-type kid, Luke, and the comings and goings of their circle of friends--artists, slackers, addicts, club kids and that always-present class of people a character in Frisk grouped together as "aesthetes and predators." But to take Guide at face value is to miss an awful lot of what's there. The story of a story being written--the one "Dennis" is writing, the one you're reading--is substantially what Guide is about, a blunt revelation not made explicit until halfway through the book. "Then magically or whatever, I start writing a novel. ... I start here--or, rather, a dozen or so pages back. That's where everything begins."

The mixing up of the author and "Dennis" is deliberate and a little disturbing. Cooper even attributes to his character an article he wrote and published in Spin magazine; a chapter of Guide begins with the opening paragraphs of that article, then wanders off into a complicated subplot featuring its subjects, two homeless kids with AIDS. But Dennis, being fictitious, is capable of shifts and manipulations a real person can only dream of. He controls scenes he doesn't even appear in, projecting himself into the thoughts of one character or directing the actions of another. ("He'd been slouched in between his friends, lost in forgettable daydreams. I starred in one, for a second.") Of course, this is the traditional prerogative of omniscient narrators, those little caesars we learned about in high school English. But Cooper plays with the notion so outrageously and with such breathtaking skill that he virtually redefines it. And Dennis, the character, turns it into a kind of subtle pathology. The darkness and intensity of Dennis Cooper's subject matter has placed him among writers generally termed "transgressive," but his boldest transgression is of the assumed contract between author and reader.

Cooper's subject matter can be pretty sensational; one character is slowly sliced to pieces, and bits of him distributed across the floors of his host's bedroom, living room and kitchen. But the gore, while central to what Cooper is doing, can overshadow other aspects of the book. The opening chapter's digression on the characteristics of LSD and heroin is one of the most provocative things I've read on the subject in any context. Asides about the likes of Guided by Voices and Blur betray one of the author's other roles, that of an occasional music critic. And when the scene is of a kid's body being dropped behind a dumpster by a couple of kiddie-porn auteurs, you're not noticing the prose style. But Cooper's is gorgeous: compact and virtually flawless, with a mix of the artful and the vernacular that no one can do better.

Guide is not the breeziest of summer books and certainly not for all tastes. But the rewards of a careful reading are numerous for readers willing to risk a look at a piece of truly risky, edgy literature. (Grove, cloth, $22)

--Jeffrey Lee


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