Bite marks

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Somebody — a young, confused, teenage boy — continually punches you in the face and gut until you’re forced to agree with him, even though you don’t. Then, when you finally do start to agree for real, you find yourself in another area of contention, still worn out from the first. This is what it’s like reading My Loose Thread, Dennis Cooper’s latest and most brutally confrontational novel. It sculpts out a jagged, obfuscate land filled with neo-Nazis, IHOPs, paranoia, teenage prostitution, secretive journals, firearms, inexplicable urges and the actions that stem from them.

Larry, our “protagonist,” is no endearing Holden Caulfield, even though we see the world through his voice. He’s in high school, and he’s in hell, in a state of fierce and cruel confusion that affects everyone around him: his alcoholic mother, his incapacitated shell of a father, his friends — who could be his enemies — and the little sickly brother he loves or desires or both.

He’s killed his best friend Rand with a punch and generally searches for answers with violence first. Rand’s death repeats over and over inside his thoughts, molding and driving his current reality, where everything’s in question, especially sexuality.

After both Larry and neo-Nazi Gilman beat and rape Larry’s friend, Tran, Larry says, “Do you think I’m gay?”

“Fuck, I don’t know,” Gilman says.

“Do you think if I don’t kill him, I am?”

Larry is so desperate for answers, he throws an odd peg into the soup by contacting the Franks: TV experts on the paranormal who capture the voices of the dead on their tape recorder. He wants to hear the truth, and he’s certain the dead can’t lie.

With absolutely no self-love apparent, the only sympathy he gets is completely dependent upon what we decide to give him. And that’s tough with Larry, since at the very beginning, he and his friend Pete have agreed to kill a kid for $500, without asking for a reason. And like Larry, the writing gives next to nothing, only what it deems necessary.

Cooper’s text is disjointed, terse, emotionally unsatisfying, sometimes cryptic and always difficult — on purpose. At the same time, he’s accomplished an amazingly difficult undertaking. “Larry” permeates the text in every way. His mental state totally controls and constructs it, giving us only what he can, how he can, at any given moment, with nothing extra. His perspective becomes our perspective, and we’re only allowed insight when Larry allows it. We become another one of his victims, forced to witness the book’s brutalities, over and over again — blood, broken bones and gruesome rapes done by and to high-school kids.

The reader hovers in a painful limbo, void of humor and humanity. Because of this, My Loose Thread insists that you use your own cache of human experience to overcome the gap and conjoin the cold text and violent content into a human being, which is what Larry is. This isn’t easy for anyone: writer, characters or reader. It’s completely up to us to supply the warmth, emotion and compassion to get through this book, and then find a way to live with it when we’re done.

Cooper has tapped into a raging adolescent strain, and he feeds the flames by utilizing references to a real-life version: the Columbine High School massacre of 1999.

Inside his head, Larry is deciding if and when and where to kill his friend Pete. He confronts Pete and asks him if he’s slept with his girlfriend, Jude. Pete avoids a straight answer and changes the subject:

“You know Klebold was gay,” he says. He glances at my crotch, which is sort of why I did that little thing with the cup, as a test. I mean thinking he might.

“No, he wasn’t.”

“Sure he was,” Pete says. “He told people. He was in love with Harris, but Harris wasn’t gay. So they did that Columbine thing instead of having sex. That’s why they did it.”

“Okay, whatever.”

“Look it up on the fucking web,” he says.

In some ways, Cooper has taken the Columbine metaphor and fleshed it out with his own set of misbegotten white-trash misfits who are so afraid to face what might be inside themselves, they’ll do anything to keep the answers at bay, even if it takes abuse, rape and murder.

With My Loose Thread, we’re all in this together, and it’s up to us to pick away the delusions from the truth, only from what we’re given. Dennis Cooper is a brave man who forces his readers to sit through the blows to get at the reasons, and one horrific truth: What you believe you are, you are — even if you’re wrong.

E-mail Anita Schmaltz at [email protected].

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