Review of The Bill From My Father by Bernard Cooper

Originally published in Lambda Book Report, Fall 2006, Vol 14:3

The straightforward integrity of The Bill from My Father, Bernard Cooper’s eloquent, new memoir, is announced by its dust jacket depicting a standard window envelope through which is visible the book’s genre, its title, and author. The back cover features praise for Cooper’s earlier books arranged as if on an invoice. It is a witty design presaging the book’s titular incident: “When I was twenty-eight years old, my father sent me a bill for his paternal services. Typed on his law firm’s onionskin stationery, the bill itemized the money he’d spent on me over my lifetime. Since he hadn’t kept tabs on the exact amounts he doled out over the years, expenditures were rounded off to the nearest dollar, and labeled food, clothing, tuition, and incidentals. Beneath the tally, in the firm but detached language common to his profession, he demanded that I pay him back.”

The author is shocked, insulted, and impressed that his life “could be added up — or reduced — to a single figure.” That figure, “somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million,” forces him to reconsider his entire upbringing. “Had I known I’d be charged for my boyhood, I might have eaten fewer snacks, been easier on my shoes, more frugal with my allowance.” Though some of the book’s twelve chapters were published in Los Angeles magazine, GQ, etc, in context the essays (simultaneously episodic and integrated) unfold the fascinating story of the author’s relationship with his father, Edward Cooper, a Jewish Los Angeles divorce lawyer, given to flamboyant shenanigans resulting in tabloid headlines. At one point, he wryly describes his father as an expert in “the dissolution of human relationships.”

As the book begins, Bernard’s mother and three older brothers — Robert, Ronald, and Richard (who called himself “Gary”) Cooper — have all died, leaving Bernard and his octogenarian father the last remaining members of the family. Bernard deftly describes how his ongoing efforts to maintain (or establish) a relationship with his father are frequently thwarted. An example of the tenor of their interactions: always cantankerous, Edward is wont to answer Bernard’s innocent questions like “How are you, Dad?” with “How should I be?” Slowly, Bernard, along with Brian, his partner and a psychotherapist, realizes that his always-erratic father is showing increased signs of dementia. Major and minor examples of irrational behavior begin accumulating at an accelerating pace: Edward files frivolous lawsuits against two of his daughters-in-law: invests his life savings in a line of kosher burritos: escalates interactions with a car salesman, a gas meter reader, and a telephone service representative; establishes relationships with two women, one of whom he marries then ostracizes, followed by the televangelist nurse who segues from live-in caretaker to bedmate before too being discarded; plus instigates more than one attenuated hiatus in the father-son relationship. Each of these episodes is told with an astute combination of fascination and frustration.

As Cooper brilliantly describes the ebbs and flows of their rocky relationship, he acknowledges his own foibles, and the universals of aging. “The realization that one is growing older comes to most of us, if we’re lucky, in bearable increments; that way, the full cargo of mortality doesn’t sink the boat, so to speak, but is brought on board in the form of manageable hand luggage.” He struggles to make sense of this important, if difficult, man and in the process comes to a deeper understand of himself.

The stories shift effortlessly back and forth in time and space, Cooper demonstrating a Proustian command of language. With a sure, steady hand, he evocates the myriad details of life, present and past — his and his father’s and their family’s. Cooper’s always-excellent craft seems, if possible, even more honed here. His turn of phrase, sense of irony, and innocent self-deprecation always serve to advance the story, to deepen the characterizations. By turns taut and meandering, the richness of the writing establishes an immediate relationship and enduring with the reader. All the characters, particularly the two protagonists, are portrayed with equal astuteness and respect.

Cooper has previously worked in memoir and its related genres, including a collection of essays, Maps to Anywhere (1990), which won the Ernest Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award: a novel, A Year of Rhymes (1993); a collection of short stories, Guess Again (2000); and an earlier memoir, Truth Serum (1996). As if to address the current controversy on the vanishing distinction(s) between fiction and nonfiction, on the verso of the volume’s title page is a disclaimer: “This is a work of nonfiction. However, certain names and details of the characters’ lives and physical appearances have been changed, and some events have been altered or combined for the sake of narrative continuity.” In the course of the narrative, Cooper poetically describes his attempts at truthfulness: “I thoroughly searched the archives of my memory, with its twisting halls and hidden rooms and admittedly disorganized filing cabinets.”

There are many moments of profoundly black humor, as if culled from a script of Six Feet Under. One morning at breakfast, nearly a year after the fact, Edward tells Bernard and his mother that he has purchased six funeral plots. His mother is confused. Plotz? she echoes. Instead of apologizing for not having consulted her, Edward boasts that he bought the six graves for the price of five: “‘Consider the savings!'” Cooper doesn’t pull any punches, his self-deprecating descriptions adding subtlety and nuance to these complicated characters and their interpersonal relationships. “Recounting his riposte isn’t easy, because my parents warned me at a young age that many non-Jews believed we had horns, were cheap, and killed Jesus Christ. (These faults, I assumed, went from least to most egregious. Had I arranged the list, horns would come last. As for Christ, I would have remembered killing someone’s savior.)”

Along the way Cooper continually reflects on his various attempts to understand and document the importance of his father’s life. “It had been more than a decade since the editor from New York had called to ask if I’d consider writing a book about my father, and my stockpile of biographical facts was as meager now as it had been then. His last breath carried him beyond comprehension in a way more literal, more definitive, than I could have imagined during his lifetime. I hadn’t been able to find any mention of him in historical records or data banks, hadn’t been able to locate a single one of his relatives or friends to press for information. Now that he was gone, our family name was untraceable, along with whatever legacy came with it.”

After Edward’s death, Bernard remains haunted by their relationship. “Soon my father’s afterlife began. Which is to say that the repercussions of his death assumed a life of their own… I’d wrongly supposed that as I went on living and my father didn’t, my tendency to invoke his voice, to engage him in the old heave-ho, would simply fade away. But as the weeks turned into months and the months turned into a longer bunch of months, his brusque rejoinders and knotty logic thrived inside me.”

In this beautifully composed memoir, richly humorous and poignant, Bernard Cooper has proven himself a master of the form and left a lasting legacy of his father, his family, and the fragility of a life.