All Ears

If you've ever trekked through one of Dennis Cooper's novels, you know that the writing is usually fascinating and the going is often tough. Quick and queer— in both senses of both words— he's an undeniable talent, but as each book fades into a hallucinogenic haze you can't help but wish for a star by which to navigate through the gaudy and well-styled prose. A star like Keanu Reeves, maybe.

The hunky actor is one of the subjects of All Ears, a collection of Cooper's journalism, and what at first glance looks like a bunch of puff pieces turns out to be a choice opportunity for Cooper to shed his indulgences. In the opening portrait of an HIV-positive teenage runaway, Cooper compacts his tale into the indelible and fleeting truths of a subject given too much leeway in his overburdened novel Guide. Cooper's occasional navel-gazing is a perfect launching pad for a critique of Nan Goldin's harrowingly intimate photography, and his clear-eyed detachment fits Courtney Love like a glove. Even his giddy pop-culture references finally find a good dance floor— what other writer could use the phrase "the aforementioned Thompson Twins fiasco" in a moving essay on addiction?

Some of All Ears hasn't aged well. The heady rush of a piece on early raves feels stale, and a pre-Titanic interview with Leonardo DiCaprio misses the boat. But time has sharpened some of the pieces as well, particularly those on William Burroughs. In an essay that originally appeared in Artscribe, Cooper uses an overhyped show of Burroughs's paintings to regard the cut-up artist's career with steely-eyed ambivalence, chronicling the downward spiral from Naked Lunch to MTV shout-out. A decade later, Cooper eulogizes Burroughs with an angry shrug, unable to fit his brilliance, exploitation, and manslaughter into a jigsaw that makes any sense. It's brilliant writing, casual and intense, and one hopes that Cooper will keep his prose just as lean and mean in novels to come.

 
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