The Most Dangerous Writer In America

Coming to Terms With the Art of Dennis Cooper

True enough, but that begs the question academics are loath to ask of transgressive writers: What are their intentions? Take Burroughs. His aesthetic dimension notwithstanding, he believed love was an invention of women imposed on men, and he accidentally killed his wife. Big Bill would pore over scrapbooks of images from child porn before writing. Cooper, too, has made scrapbooks (they're on exhibition at NYU's Fales Library as part of the conference), and they bear an uncanny resemblance to the material Burroughs used as inspiration. But along with these images that date back to his adolescence are passages in which Cooper describes their impact. He still finds these kids and their killers "sexually devastating"—and that admission makes all the difference. If Burroughs was a master of the paranoid defense, Cooper breaks through that ruse to the psychotic core of human consciousness, with its endless, helpless need. It's not an easy place to live.

His fate is to deal with a reputation so extreme that people approach him looking for snuff films, and his friends won't read his books. He finds it necessary to explain that the activities in his novels aren't real. "My life isn't like that," Cooper says. "But emotionally, it's very real, because I've been haunted by this stuff ever since I was a kid."

He grew up prosperous in the Valley, in a family that split up when he was 14, leaving him to deal with a dramatically unstable mother. "Honestly it was pretty heavy," he confides. "It wasn't, like, physical abuse, but she was out of control. Yeah, it was pretty bad."

But that was only the setting for a series of events that galvanized Cooper's imagination. There was the "freeway killer" whose victims were young hitchhikers, including several boys raped and murdered in the mountains behind Cooper's house. He hiked to what he thought was the site of the killings and had "almost a religious experience. I didn't know what it was about, but I did notice it was incredibly exciting and that no one else shared this feeling." Clippings from this case figure prominently in Cooper's scrapbook.

Where did these powerful feelings come from? "I really don't have a clue," he says. But one possibility occurs to him. About a year before the freeway killings, when he was 11, Cooper was the victim of a nearly fatal injury. His best friend, "who I had this big crush on," accidentally split his head open with an ax. Cooper was knocked unconscious and woke up covered in blood. "I reached up and my head was split open," he recalls. "I still have this big old ugly dent in my skull." Did the injury alter his emotions? "It may have had some effect on me," he says. "Having been victimized by that act of violence, maybe it de-shocked me."

Or maybe it placed him in a certain relationship to the murderous side of his budding sexuality, the stuff most kids are only aware of in gothic moments. In any event, his moral sense remained intact, leaving him caught between profound feelings of desire and powerful fantasies of destruction. Murder was never an option, but suicide was. He used to imagine shooting himself in the woods "and having this contraption that would make the dirt cover me" so that he simply disappeared.

At 15, Cooper began to put it all down on paper. "I wrote a thousand-page novel—120 Days of Sodom set in my high school—but I burned it because I was afraid my mother would discover it." In the meantime, he had met the love of his life, George Miles. That name is familiar to readers of Cooper because it figures centrally in his books. "He sort of determined everybody I'm attracted to. We met when I was in the ninth grade and he was in the sixth. He had taken acid and was having this freakout, so I took him onto the football field and we stood there for hours. He became my closest friend. Whether we were in love or not, nothing came of it because he was so young, and when I got interested he began having extreme psychological problems." Through nervous breakdowns on both sides, the two friends stayed in touch, and when Cooper was 30 and Miles 27, they had a real love affair. It didn't last.

"I started this cycle of books to work it all out," Cooper says. "I thought, 'Well, he'll read these and think of me.' " But when the fourth installment, Guide, appeared in 1997, Cooper found out that Miles had killed himself 10 years earlier. He was devastated. All the energy he had poured into his writing, all his determination to sustain the beloved in art, had been for naught. Looking back on his struggle, Cooper now believes the whole cycle has been about failure. "I really thought, when I was working on this, that I would come to grips with my interest in these things and get to the bottom of my relationship with George. But I can't." Which is why Period is a book that unravels, so that in the end, "all there is is me and this kid I'm haunted by, this boy who killed himself. The work is done and I'm still where I was."

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