An androgynous freak show act at Coney Island, a beautiful, sexually conflicted soccer goalie, and a bitter, HIV-positive gay man make up the gallery of curiosos plugging through life in Cooper’s sassy, affectingly earnest first novel.
The voice of wily tough-girl Isak predominates throughout these unsugared, hard-luck tales—or segments. A 30-year-old sometime performer, graffiti artist, and hustler who isn’t fazed by occasional street beatings and spells in New York jails, Isak decides it’s time to leave her longtime roommate, Charlie, now ailing with AIDS, and strike out for Los Angeles. Charlie suffers from self-pity more than actual sickness as he watches friends and ex-lovers dying around him. His self-loathing and obsessive TV viewing drive away Isak, whom he loves ambiguously. Meanwhile, the lovely young ex-goalie from Providence, Rhode Island, Taylor, Charlie’s cousin, flees her own tangled relationships with a group of jealous women to start a charmed life as a rich producer’s “assistant” and actress in the glamorous hills of LA. Each character tells his or her story in turn, including Taylor’s divorced mother Arlene, who frets over her antique store in Providence (more than over her daughter’s absence or whereabouts) and urges Charlie to come and live with her. Cooper is most effective when relating these singular tales without embellishment, allowing the real-life voices to emerge, raw, true, and sometimes insipid. When the stories are combined, however—as with Isak and Taylor’s trip back across country and their prickly romance, or the final gathering of the entire cast in Arlene’s house in Providence—things go less well. The ending feels as pat as one of Charlie’s Hollywood TV shows.
Still, a strong, fearless writer not afraid to show her characters’ most unflinching vulnerability. Worth watching.