Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Book review: Ugly Man by Dennis Cooper

If you've never encountered shock-fag Cooper, here's a good place to start

If you have never encountered Dennis Cooper’s tragical-farcical world of disturbed queerish teens, dangerous adults, unbridled sex and splatters of grunge and gore, here’s as good a place as any to start.

For years the high-end bookchat press has been proving its savvy with praise for shock-fag Cooper. Vanity Fair has called him “a disquieting genius;” the Village Voice, “the most dangerous writer in America;” Brett Easton Ellis, “a brilliant, triumphantly lurid writer… the last literary outlaw.” Can any writer live up to such effusions?

Ugly Man, billed as a book of stories, is more a scrapbook retake on Cooper’s arresting obsessions. Remember Dean Corll? He was a sex murderer in Texas in the early 1970s. He killed at least 27 teenage guys, torturing and having sex with many of them. In Cooper’s first entry Corll’s real-life accomplices David Brooks and Wayne Henley star in a creepy and dreamlike puppet show revisiting Corll’s deeds as a hyper-evil fuckup. The piece ends with a student essay about the show. “The puppeteer’s thinking is dislocated and each of its parts — images of images, derealized objects — displays an identity as defined as its existence is ghostlike.”

If you find this sort of thing tiresome, don’t jump too quickly to a dismissal. Everything illuminating about the piece can easily be obscured by the shock stuff (such as Corll gleefully fisting a dismembered corpse) and the disorienting bounce from puppets to real-life horrors to academic gobbledygook. I lost patience, took a deep breath, skipped back for a reread, and only then started to get what I saw as Cooper’s sardonic rage at societal sex phobias that can breed self-loathing, malevolent acting-out, fatal submission and the mass murder of lost boys. Then come the analysers and theorists — but none of it seems to unlock our erotic prisons.

The title piece, “Ugly Man,” is a meditation on sex and death condensed into a two-page snapshot of a dying man’s erotic life. It subtly explores the way death and sex have become entwined, like a virulent, ecstatic double helix, in the shadow world of dedicated barebackers and casual nondisclosers. Cooper doesn’t romanticize the ecstatic or gloss over the virulent. Sickness — its mess and humiliation — is part of the contract. Our dying man is perfectly willing to infect others, reasoning that others know and want the risks. Cooper makes no judgment, securing the sorrowful power of the piece.

When Cooper’s tweens and teens are not being ill-used by adults, they get their revenge by offing stray cats and uncool schoolmates. As comic relief, we’re offered “The Anally-Retentive Line Editor,” and his lust-driven fussing over a submitted sex story. This entry is a 20-page, rambling, shaggy porn joke — much longer than it need be to score its points.

Next up is “Oliver Twink,” the story of a committed drug addict and his supplier daddy — a trip into the convoluted bowels of a terminally bunged-up relationship. They’ve never had sex but nag each other about it ad nauseam, trading blame and tossing out rote expressions of love and remorse. You’d never want to meet these guys but on the page they’re weirdly fascinating.

Later we meet 15-year-old Bear and his sweet-16 lover in a summer vacation of unstoppable lust. “Insatiable bottom” Bear launches his boyfriend’s “lifelong fascination with rimming.” Two years later Bear commits to marrying a woman. (Presumably she will learn where her tongue belongs.) Ass opens the next entry too, then opens much wider to accommodate Cooper’s imagination — or perhaps his fondest memories.

We plunge again into misery with “The Worst.” A boy survives an axe wound, random abductions and death threats, a brutal dad, an alcoholic mother and the gruesome suicide of an uncle. The piece is really just a list of perils sadly endured by one hapless kid. The only compelling thing is the hope that it’s not a record of Cooper’s childhood. More diverting is a list of execrable Russian gay porn sites. Check them out, but by no means sign up if you value your money.

Another “story” describes the ’70s party scene at real-life LA glam club Rodney Bingenheimer’s. It’s essentially a name-drop orgy — snapshots of stars and their acolytes, ranging from Bowie and Iggy Pop to Paul Lynde and “Raymond fucking Burr.” Oh, and there’s some more rimming.

In his closing gambit Cooper offers an increasingly surreal drama between a pubescent Arkansas boy-toy, his 16-year-old junkie trick and a Middle-Eastern psychic obsessed with 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden — and rimming. The ass-eating finally becomes literal as he dines on the corpse of the dead junkie teen. Cooper lost me here, mainly because the message, already obscure, gets pushed off the page by sex-and-gore effects that just seem tired at this point. Still, the book is a keeper. As always, Cooper is fearless. He can still scarily illuminate our darkest corners.