T Cooper: Portrait of a Young Novelist
I met T Cooper for the first time in Santa Fe in late December. Sitting in a cozy café just a short distance from the galleries of Canyon Road, we chatted for a few hours over some mint tea and a very fine piece of toast. We talked about his fiction, his travels, and what it takes to make art under the current military-industrial regime.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that T Cooper is a rare bird: a smart new novelist who has made a cross-country splash without mega-corporate support or artistic compromise. Consider the remarkable success of his first novel, Some of the Parts (Akashic). In addition to being named a Quality Paperback Book Club selection and a LAMBDA Literary Award finalist, it has been translated into Italian and Turkish, and perhaps even more remarkably, selected for Barnes and Nobles’ "Discover Great New Writers" program. This means that this edgy novel sat for three months in straight-up Bill O’Reilly territory— the front row of every B+N in America, enabling moral majoritarians in Kansas and Kentucky to give it a furtive fondle before blushing and darting toward the Garfield calendars.
How does a first-time novelist on a small press create such an impression? Although in a moment I’ll tell you more about the author and his enviable ability to make himself heard, most of the credit goes to the novel itself. In a confident and BS-free writing style, Some of the Parts gives the reader four tales in one. As the four interlocking stories unfold, the reader is never sure what’s coming up next, never sure how the stories will intersect, never sure what truths will emerge about Taylor, Isak, Charlie, and Arlene.
Beautiful Taylor lives off her looks. Whether in Los Angeles or Providence, Rhode Island, tongues of both sexes unfurl whenever she gets out of her gleaming sugar-daddy-mobile and ambles into view. Although she pursues a half-assed acting career, she mostly poses as the world’s worst personal assistant— bad enough that her movie producer boyfriend/boss contemplates hiring an assistant for his assistant.
Taylor is always on the move at some level, not unlike the coolly androgynous Isak. As the novel opens, Isak is testing the waters of professional freakdom in Coney Island for far less than union wages, before taking up a more profitable occupation: street hustling b.j.s for middle-age men who blissfully mistake him/her for a teenage boy. Throughout the book we watch Isak negotiating a tricky relationship with another main character, fortyish Charlie, who is working out what it means to live with a terminal illness with a little help from the cast of 90210.
Charlie’s sister Arlene rounds out the quartet of main characters (she is also Taylor’s mother). A middle-age divorcee, Arlene seems uncertain in her dealings with the world in general, but her brother and daughter are particular sources of perplexity. Between popping assorted pills, she tries to make sense of things as she runs a small antiques shop.
In more than just the figure of Arlene, the novel plumbs one of the great themes of American literature: searing loneliness on a seemingly limitless continent. Even if the characters do not whine about being alone, the lack of enduring connection is written all over their lives. In the careful architecture of her storytelling, Cooper has constructed houses with permeable walls, each of them a frail structure that is somehow upright, if more solid in a group than alone.
In this sense the novel is about the proverbial families we choose, though it does not sentimentalize what lies on the other side of the Ozzie-and-Harriet rainbow. In T’s world, people are neither woefully atomized nor indelibly linked. Indeed, what I like best about the novel is how the random flotation of life is captured, along with moments of almost accidental stasis in which two bits of floating debris become lodged together between the rocks.
Cooper is neither sensationalist nor shy about the various intimacies he presents to the reader. Rather, he offers a matter-of-fact sexuality with many manifestations, often shaped by muted love and uncertain lust. Somehow a strong market for such writing still exists across the U.S.— though finding it isn’t always easy. Cooper says he benefited from publishing with an independent house that worked with her at every stage of the process, rather than consigning her to the PR purgatory of the solid mid-list, as some corporate publishers might have done at the first sign of flagging sales. (This strong working relationship resulted in more than 10,000 copies sold to date).
Going with a smaller house allowed her to fulfill her own vision for the book, not someone else’s. Talking in the abstract about the dark side of corporate publishing, we joke about the apparent cultural imperative for an archetypically redemptive ending, one of those soul-shattering "Oprah in South Africa" moments in which the reader gets to experience the greatest word-climax this side of Harold Robbins. As we sit in the café and gnaw on our toast, T rolls his eyes and mimics the mighty Oprah looking out at Soweto from the tinted window of his Range Rover: "These are all my children…" Then we sip our tea in firm agreement: readerly transmogrification cannot— should not— happen on page 278 of every motherlovin’ novel ever written.
Having earned an MFA in creative writing from Columbia, Cooper has been around enough writers to have heard the occasional horror stories about publishing with a subsidiary of Bertelsmann, Time Warner, or Nabisco. Someone in marketing wants a new title. Someone in legal wants to arm wrestle for subsidiary rights. Someone hiding behind the water cooler wants a fatter slice of a skinny pie. And worst of all: someone in editorial wants to tamper with the freakin’ magnum opus itself. T is too gracious to mention his own experiences, but reading deep between the lines I can imagine the velvet wheedles he must have heard on the telephone when first approaching publishers: We love the edginess, but couldn’t you take out some of the naughty bits? And we love the gender bender angle, but wouldn’t it be great if someone got married at the end? And how about a gunfight? Everybody loves a gunfight, right?
Cooper was able to avoid such banalities by going the indie route he has chosen throughout his life. After growing up in LA, he headed east to Middlebury for college and then moved to New Orleans for a stint as a high school English teacher. In the mid-1990s, he went back north to NYC where he launched a ’zine called The Fish Tank, winning a Firecracker Alternative Book Award in 1999. He also worked at that glorious factory of pop cultural genius: Teen People magazine.
Don’t laugh. Teen People led him inexorably to the subject that would change his life: The Backstreet Boys. While researching articles on these post-pubescent, semi-musical icons, he was inspired to start an all-woman boy band dubbed "The Backdoor Boys," which was soon touring in exotic locations such as Malaysia and Philadelphia. In addition to leading the spoof band through the pseudo-sultry gymnastics required of the genre, he also made sure their racy performances tapped into the burbling font of homoerotique that lubricates the inner workings of these multiplatinum boyband extravaganzas. Hence the appearance of strap-on’s and simulated sex that ensured The Backdoor Boys would live up to their name in every public performance. After one show, Cooper overheard a well-heeled couple debating "Why the men in the Backdoor Boys used prosthetic penises when they could’ve used their own?" Then one of them suggested that perhaps "the dildoes were there to add further texture and layers to the Backdoor Boys’ commentary on pop-culture."
Leading a successful drag king boy-band parody quartet gave him an education in guerilla PR that would come in handy as an author planning a 35 city book tour. Touring as a first-time novelist was not exactly a long train of ego-bursting encounters with adoring fans, limo drivers, and publicists. Instead, Cooper encountered some unexpected resistance along the way, including from some B+N employees who trembled in the presence of an actual author who was neither a "free range cowboy poet," "college football historian," nor "D.A.R. cookbook compiler." Indeed, whenever he sauntered to the counter and politely offered to sign some of her books, he got the look that Giuliani once reserved for squeegee men: "The booksellers would invariably stare at me blankly for a few seconds before going to find the manager, who would in turn ask to see my I.D."
In addition to honing his promotional skills, his spoof musical background gave him insight into vexing questions such as "Backstreet Boys or N’sync— from whence cometh the greater wisdom and musical rapture?" As his hilarious website (www.t-cooper.com) demonstrates, he posed a version of this question to celebrities like Oprah, whose comment, via representatives, was as follows: "We thank you very much for thinking of her, but we, uh, we’re not able to participate." George W., Joan Jett, Rudolph Giuliani, and Donnie Wahlberg had responses of similar pith and vigor.
If everything in Cooper’s colorful background goes into his work in some form, his work is far from autobiographical. He appreciates his readers and editors even more than the average writer, but still knows the frustration of dealing with people dead certain that [you are what you write,] as if an author has nothing except the well of personal experience from which to draw. What else could explain the occasional (apparent) overlap between life and art?
In the case of Cooper, I would suggest that this overlap is philosophical rather than literal. Certain themes emerge both in his conversation and his writing. (1.) a bemused awareness of the heaving underbelly of American culture, at which he pokes with wry intelligence and not an ounce of meanness. (2.) The surprising elasticity of identity (surprising because it defies our desire to categorize) (3.) The paradoxical blend of fragility and resilience that marks the most profound human relations. (4.) The joys of air hockey and the spiritual poverty of diet colas. I’m on board with all of these, in case you’re wondering.
A few days later we meet again in Santa Fe and he shares video snapshots from his travels. I see him standing amid the chubby throngs of Dollywood, alone in a sea of patriotic corpulence. I see Murray, his miniature Pincher, next to a David Hockney pool. I see Las Vegas in the rain and Texas under blue skies. I see ominous footage of the world’s largest crucifix along side I-40 in Amarillo, just outside the giant cloud of bovine stench where Texas cattle meet the Burger King.
Cooper now seems poised on the cusp of even bigger things as he dives into his next manuscript, an ambitious novel about Texas Jews that will test his ability to imagine life on two continents over the past century. "I want to stretch myself," he says about the new project, "and not to be afraid of writing beyond what’s necessarily comfortable." He’s off to a running start on the project after spending four weeks at the prestigious MacDowell writer’s colony, where he enjoyed the magical appearance of food baskets at his cabin door, kindred souls lurking everywhere in the woods, paper flying in his novelist’s sanctuary, indeed paper flying everywhere except perhaps in the nearby poet’s cabin, where a roughed out image of a dirty rainbow made for a good day. For a serious young novelist in George Bush’s America, however, any day with a free lunch and time to write is worth remembering.