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The Most Dangerous Man in America: The Violently Subversive Writing of Dennis Cooper

There is subversive, there is controversial… and there is Dennis Cooper. I can think of no other writer better acquainted with the language of violence. A latter-day Marquis de Sade, he scrutinizes the pain, guilt and fear of gay teens, amplified by human horror and the predatory older men who speak that language fluently. What elevates his work above the splatterpunk lit-porn is that his work is the kind of transcendent, transgressive literature offering readers a brutal lyricism that exists in the fiction of Heather Lewis (NOTICE) and Laura Albert (SARAH and LABOUR, writing under the pseudonym of J.T. LeRoy).

Dubbed in literary, media and publishing circles as “The Most Dangerous Man in America” (for marketing reasons, one expects), the author’s literary intentions wildly misinterpreted to be work from the mind of a subversive deviant. But to wholly describe Dennis Cooper in these terms does the writer a disservice. He writes from the perspective of somebody who was once a damaged youth, a storyteller who is writing about the voiceless, gay teenage boys dragged down into the abyss and those pathetic lonely monsters inhabiting that space, always waiting.

FRISK is a disturbed child’s epistolary account of sadism and obsession, recounted by an unreliable narrator. THE SLUTS is a deadly (and deeply affecting) game of Chinese whispers told via IM messaging/online reportage and testimonials surrounding the cyber-mythic figure of “Brad,” and THE MARBLED SWARM is about culinary delights, cannibalism and incest.

 

We aren’t often given a glimpse into the culture of sexual violence as it relates to men, and the male rape-survivor is something of a cultural anomaly. There are a few well-known titles that haven’t shied away from this contentious topic: A.M Holmes introduced another anomaly in her blistering THE END OF ALICE, in which a teen girl and budding pedophile preys on a young boy while corresponding with an incarcerated child-killer; Alissa Nutting came at it from a different angle with TAMPA, which followed the abhorrent and remorseless Celeste Price, a beautiful teacher who seduces 14-year-old boys. The satire highlighted our mainstream media’s reactions when it comes to female sex offenders, and how they are portrayed by the press as vulnerable young women who’ve tragically succumbed to a criminal predilection.

The aforementioned Laura Albert, a.k.a. J.T. LeRoy (whose works merit a whole other article) became something of a controversial global phenomenon: Shirley Manson’s Cherry Lips is all about JT, and THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS was adapted into a feature film by Asia Argento. Albert writes from the children’s point-of-view — a smorgasbord of religion, street waifs, gender-swapping and lot lizards.

Despite Cooper’s efforts, he still hasn’t quite gained as much recognition as his work merits; he’s been the recipient of death threats and disliked by shock rocker Marilyn Manson. A true visionary is an artist who can venture into the nightmares of their imagination, the raw horror of their memories, and the cesspool of personal trauma and transmute what they find into something that engages and horrifies. Dennis Cooper is that kind of artist. With horror no longer having a strict blueprint, and given the cross-pollination of genres and ideas we’ve seen in recent years, isn’t it about time we embraced that flexibility in our favorite genre?

The former Californian and multi-layered author (who is also a poet and performance artist) embraced it when he edited a short-lived division of the imprint Akaschic Books called LITTLE HOUSE ON THE BOWERY, and generously, spiritedly commissioned work from a slew of radical (and talented) writers whose work splinters genre convention: like Travis Jeppeson (VICTIMS) and Matthew Stokoe (COWS). Cooper continues to write prominently in the field of subversive literature, and even went mainstream when he signed up with Harper Perennial for UGLY MAN, without losing that razor-edged nihilism. I think it’s about time we talked about gay teen boys and the impact of sex and violence on their lives, because sometimes it doesn’t get better…

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UGLY MAN

Much of Dennis Cooper’s fiction shares themes with the writing of Flannery O’ Connor. Okay, so maybe you wouldn’t find Flannery mining seriously fucked-up smut sites (unlikely, given the time-period), writing about consensual mutilation and murder or boy-annihilation. But both authors do have a similarly humorous thread that runs through their work that will make you laugh out loud… once you’ve gotten past your initial revulsion and psychological trauma.

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MY LOOSE THREAD

Most teenagers have identity issues and anger-management problems… but most teenagers aren’t Larry, the viciously sullen antagonist of MY LOOSE THREAD. Though not a factual account of the Columbine massacre, it creatively co-opts certain facets of the Columbine killers’ existences and circumstances in Larry’s creation. A sociopathic boy, who agrees to murder a classmate, is having an incestuous relationship with his brother and is part of a Nazi group. Everyone loves a psychotic, right? Though some advice to those of a sensitive nature: soak brain in bleach after reading.

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THE GEORGE MYLES CYCLE

Cooper’s most famous work, which is a series of interconnected novels, had a pretty difficult gestation: a childhood obsession of Cooper’s spawned the cycle of novels CLOSER, FRISK, TRY, GUIDE and PERIOD. Again, it covers pretty brutal terrain, including epistolary savagery — a boy called Ziggy is ritualistically abused by a network of pederasts — and Cooper’s universe is a hectoring and wounding place with nightmare-logic rules for all involved. Cooper planned the novels in his teens, and it took him years to develop the writing ability to put it on the page. It is widely held that FRISK is the strongest entry, and it is as close to traditional horror as he gets, right up there with AMERICAN PSYCHO and Poppy Z. Brite’s EXQUISITE CORPSE. Again… approach with caution.

And there is HORROR HOSPITAL UNPLUGGED, a graphic novel that I haven’t read.

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