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Richard Labonte | February 27, 2006

The Bill from My Father, by Bernard Cooper. Simon & Schuster, 242 pages, $24 hardcover.

Cooper's cantankerous father, who died in 2000, has figured prominently in the author's two previous collections of autobiographical essays (as well as in the novel A Year of Rhymes). So it's pretty remarkable that The Bill from My Father – the title comes from an itemized invoice for $2 million that a piqued Edward Cooper once sent his puzzled son – is such a deliciously fresh memoir. The book's seductive energy stems from Cooper's tender, eloquently surgical dissection of the psychic and physical chasm separating an aloof, often baffling father – at one time a prominent L.A. divorce lawyer – and his gay son. Edward was certainly a man who relished distance from Bernard: in his dotage, years after his wife's death, he married again – but never did tell his son that his second wife left him not long after the ceremony; later, he hid an affair with his evangelical day-care nurse. Many gay men have tangled relationships with their fathers, but Cooper's masterful memoir, emotional and entertaining in equal measure, sets the standard for writing about dear old dads.



The Last Time I Saw You, by Rebecca Brown. City Lights, 105 pages, $12.95 paper.

Love doesn't come easy, and memory is always suspect, for the lesbian narrators in Brown's dark-humored collection of a dozen brilliant, edgy stories. "Trying to Say" considers what a woman intended to tell her ex-girlfriend – "maybe I am trying to say forgive me" – but never did. The same emotionally tremulous turf is covered in "Other," a litany of anger and anguish laced with disturbing imagery directed at unfaithful lovers – "why did I swing by a rope from the thought of you." In the title story, a woman parses her past romance with gloomy uncertainly – "maybe we went to a bar... maybe I begged you for something you could not give." Every story is a stylistic and imaginative standout, but the most intriguing is "Aspect of the Novel," a truly original exercise in essayistic fiction that contrasts the closeted career of British novelist E.M. Forster – who wrote his queerest novel, Maurice, in 1914, but wouldn't permit its publication until after his death in 1970 – with the secrets that the lovers populating Brown's unsentimental prose keep from one another.



Rhapsody in Blood, by John Morgan Wilson. St. Martin's Press, 288 pages, $24.95 hardcover.

The first six Benjamin Justice mysteries were set in the wee city of West Hollywood, a milieu Wilson has mined admirably for its sexual, political, and murderous peccadilloes. Rhapsody in Blood drops Justice – AIDS widower, disgraced journalist, recovering alcoholic, unsentimental sleuth – into quite a different setting, a move that adds interesting oomph to the popular series. He has accompanied best friend Alexandra Templeton to an isolated down-at-the-heels hotel, where a film crew is re-enacting the murder, five decades earlier, of an iconic actress – and where a pushy-broad gossip columnist shows up, intent on outing one of the movie's stars. Murder happens, and a foul-mouthed moppet with a role in the film is the prime suspect – until Justice and Templeton sort things out, bantering all the way in fine Nick-and-Nora fashion. The busy plot touches on topics like racism, rap-music misogyny, and life on the down low, but in the main this latest entry in an engrossing series is less angst-ridden than earlier books – yet no less compelling.



About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews, by Samuel R. Delany. Wesleyan University Press, 432 pages, $24.95 paper.

Despite the title, this is far from a facile how-to book for would-be writers – though an exacting 40-page appendix does discuss such basics as punctuation, point of view, dramatic structure, first-person perspective, and even the proper use of apostrophes. Delany's approach is a lot more philosophical, autobiographical, and – for readers who stick with his intelligently abstruse style – valuable than most books about the craft (or, as the noted science fiction/queer novelist prefers, the "mechanics") of writing. In one essay, he delivers a stinging "horse-whipping" to a story by an anonymous author, critiquing its cliches relentlessly. This seems mean – but every novice will learn from the intense dissection of the young writer's miscues. Four long letters from Delany to aspiring writers, evaluating their fiction, are equally stern, and immensely informative; at the same time, lengthy interviews of Delany by others – in which he discusses genre writing, literary canons, gay sensibility, and his own work – are hugely informed. About Writing is an invaluable tutorial.



Featured Excerpt:
When I was 28 years old, my father sent me a bill for his paternal services. Typed on his law firm's onionskin stationery, the bill itemized the money he�d spent on me over my lifetime. Since he hadn't kept tabs on the exact amounts he�d doled out over the years, expenditures were rounded off to the nearest dollar and labeled food, clothing, tuition, and incidentals. Beneath the tally, in the firm but detached language common to his profession, he demanded that I pay him back. The total was somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million. –from The Bill from My Father, by Bernard Cooper



Footnotes:
MARTIN MORAN'S MEMOIR about childhood sexual abuse and adult recovery, The Tricky Part, is one of three nonfiction titles selected by Barnes & Noble for its 2006 Discover Great New Writers Award – an honor that guarantees the gay book prominent display in the chain's bookstores and hefty advertising support...
U.K. LESBIANS HONORED: Scottish poet and playwright Carole Ann Duffy has won the $17,500 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry for her collection Rapture (Picador), a book-length love affair written in verse; Ali Smith was awarded the prestigious British Whitbread (and about $9,000) for her third novel, The Accidental, published in the U.S. by Pantheon; and Jeanette Winterson – whose first novel for young adults, Tanglewreck, will be published by Bloomsbury in June – received the Order of the British Empire (OBE)...
THE ARCH AND BRUCE BROWN Foundation is soliciting unpublished novels or collections of related short stories based on, or directly inspired by, a historic person, culture, work of art, or event – "you may think your affair with the dancer from the Russian ballet was historic, but it doesn't count," caution the award's administrators. Deadline for submissions is Nov. 30, 2006; the winner will be announced in 2007 at the annual Lambda Literary Awards dinner – and receive $1,000. The award is sponsored by playwright and filmmaker Arch Brown in memory of his life partner of 28 years, Bruce Allen Brown, a pharmaceutical chemist who died of a brain hemorrhage in 1993. For info: www.aabbfoundation.org.

Richard Labonte has been reading, editing, selling, and writing about queer literature since the mid-'70s.


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