Ugly Man by Dennis Cooper
The kids are not okay. Nor are the adults or the society that they inhabit. That is the underlying moral of Ugly Man, Dennis Cooper’s most recent literary offering. Over the span of his career, Cooper has garnered a reputation as a dangerous writer, someone who renders the terms "transgressive" and "extreme" nothing more than hollow labels in our synthetic media culture. Cooper likewise puts to the test the values of anyone who claims to be an anti-censorship advocate, while forcing readers to reevaluate the definition of shock value. After the comparatively tame God Jr. in 2005, he is back to form with a collection of short stories that examines pedophilia, Satanism, violence, and even terrorism in the contemporary landscape of American adolescence.
In the opening story “Jerk,” an adult man performs a puppet show interspersed with written pieces depicting his teenage exploits in which he and a friend helped an older man torture and kill consenting male victims. Young men in their late teens and twenties come to the man’s house stating a death wish based on a general sense of disaffection with a mediocre life and a desire to end it on the most violently brutal note imaginable. Of course, after several rounds of rape and torture, the victims have usually changed their minds about dying this way, but the killers persist, recording their crimes on videotape. In the titular “Ugly Man” a man with a fatal disease that causes him to physically wither away hires hustlers to service him despite knowing that they will catch his malady. The protagonist of “Graduate Seminar” describes his infamous art project in which he follows a hitchhiking boy and photographs him across country. When he explains his project to a trucker who picks up the boy, the trucker asks the artist’s permission to kill the subject for the sake of art.
The novice reading this collection will wonder if there really are that many sexually ambiguous young men possessed by the most brutal and distortedly violent impulses walking around everyday society. And yet in the context of Cooper’s unfazed delivery, the answer seems realistically yes. In fact, Cooper’s intentions as an author seem less about cheap shock value but rather about throwing the value of shock into complacent readers’ faces. Stories of junkies and Satanists teaming up and killing one another and/or themselves seem to mockingly underscore everything that society indoctrinates its members to be afraid of, yet leave one skeptical that these forces are actually the cause of such atrocities.
As the collection progresses, it wanes a bit, and some of the stories do read like filler such as “The Fifteen Worst Russian Gay Porn Web Sites” (I did not investigate whether these URLs actually exist) and “The Noll Dynasty.” Perhaps the most ambivalent piece is the concluding one “The Ash Gray Proclamation” in which 13 year-old Mackerel and Josh, his 16 year-old maybe-friend/maybe-assailant (the roles are often left undefined in Cooper’s universe) visit a Muslim psychic and attempt to unravel the legacy of 9/11. Ultimately, both teenagers die by different means and Mackerel’s ambition to capture bin Laden and end terrorism and the war against it is left unrealized. In one sense, the story seems overly long and slow-paced. In another sense, it reemphasizes the book’s thesis that a climate of American apathy and hedonism renders people passively numb and unwilling to actively engage in solving the problems that afflict our world.
Ugly Man by Dennis Cooper