Ugly Man

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

For a writer whose reputation, fairly or not, hinges upon his choice of extreme subject matter—violence, sex, porn—Dennis Cooper frequently challenges himself by departing from his earlier work. In 2005, God Jr., his self-described "PG-13" novel, strayed from his usual fare to render a father's guilt and mourning after the death of his teenage son. Ugly Man, Cooper's latest collection, returns to familiar territory—a man reenacts murder and mutilation in a puppet-theater performance; a 16-year-old is eaten by a psychic-turned-cannibal terrorist. But this book too is unique in the Cooper oeuvre: Though the author has certainly flirted with humor before (especially in his novel The Sluts), this time around the stories are almost entirely comedic.

"The Fifteen Worst Russian Gay Porn Web Sites" is exactly what it sounds like—a series of pithy digressions on the content of sites such as "Three Boys Who Thought Experimental Fiction Was for Pussies" is a catalog of conquests; Matthew, the skinniest of the bunch, had little to offer "if you need your asses to be classics, but if you see the butt as art, it was a James Turrell or Robert Ryman." Another high point, a motormouthed, gossipy monologue about hanging out in an L.A. glam club in the '70s, reveals Cooper's rare gift for saturating unpretentious speech with extreme intelligence. "The Worst (1960--1971)" is one of the few nonhumorous pieces here, and also one of the best—a seemingly autobiographical list of straightforwardly described horrors (suicidal uncles, murdered hustlers, etc.).

But even in these moments of intense melancholy, Ugly Man has a lightness that Cooper hasn't achieved elsewhere. Though the collection deals with topics that are shocking, even abhorrent, it is certainly this highly talented author's most accessible work to date.—Kimberly King Parsons

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By Dennis Cooper. Harper Perennial, $13.99 paperback.