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Memoir and Mystery

Photo by Drew Reynolds

Photo by Drew Reynolds

Thanks to the truthectomies recently performed on the fabrications of James Frey and Nasdijj, it’s hard to imagine a more stressful moment to write and publish a memoir. But Bernard Cooper can. Back in 1991, Cooper flew to New York to accept the PEN/Hemingway award for Maps to Anywhere, a collection of essays and memoirs that touched on, among other delicate subjects, his father Edward’s extramarital affairs.

“In my excitement, however, I’d overlooked one crucial hitch,” Cooper recounts in his new book, The Bill From My Father, a poignantly lucid memoir of filial relations. “Now that it had been deemed worthy by a panel of judges, my father might decide to read the book.”

Cooper, art critic for Los Angeles magazine, reluctantly decides that he cannot share the important moment with Edward, a laconic, emotionally ambivalent Los Angeles divorce attorney. After a lifetime of unsuccessfully begging his father to read his writing, Cooper seemingly dissuades Edward from reading the book or attending the awards ceremony. But in a moment that defines Edward perfectly, Cooper disembarks at JFK and finds his father waiting for him. “ ‘How . . .?’ I sputtered,” writes Cooper. His father’s terse reply: “ ‘Your plane. I went first class.’ ”

Having survived this experience — imagine your worst critic leaping out at you from behind a baggage conveyor — Cooper lounges easefully in his sunny, spotless Silver Lake living room less than a week before The Bill From My Father hits bookstores. Perhaps it’s because there will be no further such moments: His father passed away in 2000, a fact that he says was necessary for him to write the new book.

“There were things that I think would be very difficult for him to confront, had I put them in print,” says Cooper. Cooper’s restraint is all the more novel, considering that The Bill From My Father contains nary a whiff of incest, sexual abuse, crack addiction or any other of the genre’s mainstays. “Although my father did some absolutely outrageous things, with a lot of memoirs it’s about upping the ante about a person’s experiences or upbringing,” he says. “The James Frey thing is a case in point of memoir being an extension of self-help.”

When facts are exaggerated or fabricated at the service of emotional truths — i.e., the “post-truth memoir” — the trouble isn’t necessarily that actual events were unworthy of publication, but that the author lacked the psychological insight needed to make them intriguing. Cooper says he never finished reading Frey’s book for that very reason. “It seemed a raw reportorial account without much self-reflection, and that didn’t make it very interesting to me,” he says. Cooper is far more reverent toward those practitioners of the genre — Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr, George Orwell and Scott Russell Sanders — whose work doesn’t attempt the memoir industry’s version of a Hollywood ending: resolution. “Great earth-shattering losses can become more finely woven into the fabric of your experience, but they never go away,” he says. “I’ve always felt changed by memoirs, but not like it’s a Thighmaster.”

The title of Cooper’s book is not metaphoric: His father actually sent him a $2 million bill for his upbringing. “My worth as a son was verified daily by the absence of a summons to appear in court,” Cooper writes of his obsessively litigious father, who is just loving enough that Cooper cannot bear to cut ties with him. Edward staves off grief over his three eldest sons’ untimely deaths, and exhausts his remaining progeny’s inheritance, by squandering his last years on quixotic lawsuits against the phone company, neighbors, his doctor and even his daughters-in-law.

The younger Cooper isn’t concerned with unsettled scores, but, rather, with the emotional riddle at play. “A family memoir so often follows the convention in which a parent dies, some secrets are uncovered, the family skeletons come out of the closet, and the story is complete,” he says. “I wish! If there’s some resolve to the book, it’s being content with the mystery.”

Rather than getting clues to the past from his father, Cooper received even more questions. To answer his son’s curiosity about the family history, Edward presents Cooper with a coat of arms tracing their line back to British royalty, cheerfully ignoring the fact that both of Cooper’s parents were Russian Jews who adopted their surname at Ellis Island.

Cooper has expanded gracefully on the little he inherited, however. A wall-size cabinet in his living room contains a large collection of Plasticville model railroad buildings, the first of which were passed on to him by his brother, who died of lymphoma when Cooper was in fifth grade. “There is a kind of Anytown — Anyplastictown — quality to them,” Cooper says, explaining his fondness. Like his father’s version of family history, the Plasticville collection is an opaque but treasured link to the past.

The Bill From My Father will soon reach a mass audience: A film version directed by Dean Parisot (Fun With Dick and Jane) and written by Bob Nelson (Nebraska) is in the works. There are enough moments of high concept in it — the episode on the airplane, the $2 million bill — to sustain a movie adaptation, but rarely is a family memoir without skeletons adapted into a feature film. One can only hope Hollywood is as unwilling to simplify, to exaggerate or to prescribe as Cooper is. “By delving into the riddle of him,” he writes of his father, “I hoped to know his mystery by finer degrees.”

THE BILL FROM MY FATHER | By BERNARD COOPER | Simon & Schuster | 256 pages | $24 hardcover