Like Cooper’s previous novel (A Year of Rhymes, 1993) and memoir (Truth Serum, 1996), his debut collection of 11 stories, most first seen in literary quarterlies, focuses on gay men in southern California.
“Night Sky” sets the tone. As the narrator helps his ex-wife spy on her second ex-husband, Cooper doesn’t quite succeed in avoiding every easy opportunity for bitchy humor, but his real interest is in the emotional connection, deeper than friendship though no longer sexual, that binds this gay man and straight woman. This seesaw between cliché and hard-won insight turns up in the weaker entries, some of them no more than slices of gay life, often marked by the numbingly repeated threat of AIDS. Most of the time, however, Cooper adopts a fresh, matter-of-fact approach that neither trivializes nor overemphasizes the boundaries between the gay world and the straight. “What to Name the Baby” explores a daughter’s relationship with her gay father and his companion. As she gives birth to her baby, the viewpoint shifts from the girl to the companion, a poet who suffers a climactic stroke that robs him of language. A certain sentimentality aside, these are people the reader cannot help caring about. “Hunters and Gatherers” has a tougher skin. A Mormon couple holds a dinner party for gay acquaintances, in an attempt to preserve their marriage despite the husband’s predilection for “collegiate” young men. The party goes comically awry, but the Mormons are neither villains nor buffoons, simply confused and unhappy. So are the father and son in “Bit-O-Honey,” in which a barber who happens to be gay sneaks into his estranged father’s house, desperate to connect. The trappings include Halloween costumes and echoes of the movie E.T., but what lingers is the son’s sense of loss despite enduring love, the central tragedy in so many of Cooper’s stories.
When he hits his mark between sentiment and jokiness, Cooper can be searing.