God Jr.by Dennis Cooper
The boldest step into a new paradigm of narrative I’ve read in a while.” –Jim Krusoe, The Los Angeles Times
The new novel from one of America’s most acclaimed writers is a haunting story of fathers, sons, and our struggle to connect with our loved ones.
Dennis Cooper has been praised as a writer of ‘disquieting genius’ by Vanity Fair, and his sparely crafted novels have earned him an international reputation–even as his subject matter has made him a controversial figure. God Jr. is a stunningly accomplished new novel that marks a new phase in Cooper’s noteworthy career.
God Jr. is the story of Jim, a father who survived the car crash that killed his teenage son Tommy. Tommy was distant, transfixed by video games and pop culture, and a mystery to the man who raised him. Now, disabled by the accident, yearning somehow to absolve his own guilt over the crash, Jim becomes obsessed with a mysterious building Tommy drew repetitively in a notebook before he died. As the fixation grows, Jim starts to take on elements of his son–at the expense of his job and marriage–but is he connecting with who Tommy truly was?
A tender, wrenching look at guilt, grief, and the tenuous bonds of family, God Jr. is unlike anything Dennis Cooper has yet written. It is a triumphant achievement from one of our finest writers.
Praise for Dennis Cooper:
“Cooper is a master of the minimal. His spare sentences move along like deft camera cuts.” –Dodie Bellamy, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“There’s a stainless steel sheen to Cooper’s sentences that is as admirable as anything this side of Didion.” –Daniel Reitz, Salon
“This beautiful book is a first-person narration of how grief grows and morphs after a death, and its style and naked pain make the reader feel like he has suffered a concussion. . . . Carefully wrought in Cooper’s trademark short, clipped sentences. There’s no room for the pain to hide, and Cooper lays it bare with humor and striking honesty.” –Jonathan Messinger, Time Out
“Cooper has always been know for tight, gruesome prose and this is no exception. . . . Razor-sharp . . . heartrending.” –Cargo
“Cooper has transformed the all-American boy story. . . . Transcends the formulaic with exquisite writing on the level of Rimbaud’s Illuminations. . . . Cooper has his characters seeing and saying things–crucial things that nobody else writing today sees or says. . . . God Jr. is restive, uncertain and, most important, uncanny. . . . He is to be honored for following in Beckett’s footsteps so fearlessly. . . . It is an American masterpiece.
“Absorbing . . . carefully spare, pop-cultures prose that has earned him a cult following. B-” –Adam B. Vary, Entertainment Weekly
“Cooper is at his best, really, writing for the unreal, the half-alive, the animated figures that form the other-world of Tommy’s desire: the computer game figures. Here he brings us characters who say things and do things and mean things.” –J. Peter Bergman, Edge
“The ingenuity of the narrative . . . is indeed compelling. Still, the best things here are Jim’s disclosures of his piercing, unending grief over the loss of the son he loved–and grew close to–too late. . . . Probably Cooper’s best yet.” –Kirkus Reviews
“Cooper’s genius has always been for dialogue: the clipped marriage and workplace exchanges feature searing ironies and delicate nuances that are arresting.” –Publishers Weekly
“The boldest step into a new paradigm of narrative I’ve read in a while.” –Jim Krusoe, The Los Angeles Times
The Crowd Pleaser
I work for a company called the Little Evening Out. We make children’s clothing for special occasions. Our founder was a one-legged Vietnam vet. He passed away in “93. Thanks to him, all of our employees are disabled. I sit in a wheelchair, but my upper body works. I can also think and talk. If I were sitting in a real chair, no one would guess I have a problem.
It’s my day to work the showroom. Usually I’m stuck on the computer taking orders. If it weren’t for the Internet, we’d be dead. But sometimes people walk in the door.
“How can I help you?”
‘my son needs something fancy for a wedding,” says a good-looking woman with a small blond boy. She points at the wall where we display the samples. “What is that, exactly?”
“A bee. We do school plays.”
“I see. And that?” she asks. She means the red molecule. That’s what we call it. Sometimes people pay us to turn their kids’ drawings into clothes. That kid was two.
I explain what it’s called and why it came into existence.
“You want to wear that instead?” she asks the boy, and smiles at me. “Well, you can’t. Maybe next time.”
“No,” he says quietly.
I never look at the kids. It’s too painful. Not even little kids like him.
‘didn’t I see you in the paper?” she asks me after a thoughtful pause. “I did, didn’t I?”
“You mean last Thursday’s Times.”
“It was a fascinating story,” she says. ‘very complex. We discussed it in my class. I teach ethics.”
“What did your students think?”
“They decided you’re a very cool father,” she says. “But they’re not sure you’re right.”
“I’m quote-unquote obsessed.”
“As you should be,” she says earnestly. “Whether you’re right on this particular issue or not.”
She studies the display wall and decides she wants the little black tuxedo. Marianne, who’s learning-disabled and obese, does the fittings. So we’re done. I hand the woman my card.
“I’d like to see what you’re building,” she says. Marianne is leading her and her reluctant son away. “Is it possible to drive by? The paper printed your address, so I’m assuming it is.”
“I’d like to bring my students,” she says. ‘do you ever give tours?”
“If you can give me some notice.”
She waves my card at me. “I’ll call you?” she says.
“Was she getting on your case?” Al asks. I guess he overheard us from the office. He lost his right leg in a boating accident. His son died young like mine, but in his case, it wasn’t his fault.
“No, she wants to see the monument. She wants to bring her students.”
“They’ll love it,” he says. “They’ll be all gung ho.”
“It’s an ethics class. So maybe not.”
“Kids love it,” he says. ‘my kids want to start a petition.”
“How are they, by the way?”
‘my older girl just got accepted into UCLA,” he says. “Which reminds me. She says she met your Tommy once. She says she recognized his picture in the paper.”
‘did she say how?”
“No,” he says. “I should have asked. I’ll ask her.”
‘she likes extreme sports,” he says. “I think that might be it. She goes to those X-whatever shows. I think she’s even dating one of them.”
“That’s probably it.”
“They’re not bad boys,” he says uncertainly. “It’s just something new. Like soccer was.”
“I used to think they were a bunch of lazy asses who were always stoned or drunk. I didn’t realize that if a boy that age was happy, he’d seem coarse.”
Al’s eyes look sad now. He must think I mean Tommy. Maybe I do. “I’ll ask her,” he says gently.
‘don’t worry. They’re harmless idiots. She’ll be fine.”
‘sorry to mention it,” he says, and starts typing.
We receive maybe ten online orders every day. People link to our site from disabled support sites. There’s always some imminent wedding or school play or funeral, and we’re a godsend to them. They don’t mind that the clothes won’t fit perfectly. They just need us to help them. They send us long, moving e-mails with their orders. I think most of them don’t even have children.
“Excuse me?” asks the woman from before. She has wandered into the office. I guess the boy is still getting fitted.
“Oh, hi. This is Al.”
“You’re a teacher,” Al says to her. ‘my wife’s a teacher.”
‘small world,” she says, smiling. Then she looks at me. “What about tomorrow? I mean for the tour.”
“I work until six.”
“Of course,” she says, and cringes. “I wasn’t thinking.”
“Take the morning off,” Al says.
“I could do it in the morning.”
“That’s perfect,” she says.
“But I should warn you that I’m not so good with kids.”
“That’s perfect,” she says again. “It’s a small class. Twelve students, if they all show up.”
“Is nine o’clock okay?”
She nods happily. “I’m excited,” she says, and grabs my hand. “This is a big, big help.”
After they leave, the two Mexican guys who make the clothes get their instructions. They work in a small warehouse behind the office. We keep the windows closed because they always play their music. It’s cheerful to them, but those trumpets drive us crazy. Our radio is tuned to a local oldies station. Al, Marianne, and I are around the same age, meaning somewhere in our forties. The Mexicans are young illegal guys. Manuel was shot in the back when his family sneaked over the border. He’s in a wheelchair like me. His friend Jose claimed he was dying of cancer to get the job. One night his wife left us a phone message saying he lied about the cancer. She sounded drunk. Al and I wanted to fire him until Marianne started crying. So we never mentioned the call to Jose. But I like Marianne to worry we could fire him any minute.
Al tries to grab the phone away from Marianne. She backs across the office dialing. She wants to hear the Eagles. He’s a country-music purist. I’m basically indifferent. We may look like poignant triplets, but our pasts have different soundtracks. Still, we share, or, in my case, shared children. Kids don’t care about their songs the way we care about the old ones. Music isn’t special anymore. It’s a given. It takes itself and every kid for granted, and we bear the collateral damage. The more recent the oldies, the less we mind and the more we’re in agreement.
‘request that song we were talking about a few minutes ago.”
“What’s it called?” Al asks me. “Quick.”
“We couldn’t remember.”
“Alice in Chains?” Al says.
“That’s the band. We need the song.”
‘stop, Marianne,” Al says. “We have a better idea.”
“I’ll fire Jose.”
“No, you won’t,” she says, smiling.
I push the intercom button that sends my amplified voice into the warehouse. “Jose, to the office.”
Marianne cups her hand around the mouthpiece. “‘desperado’ by the Eagles?” she asks. Her voice could be easily mistaken for a child’s, so we always have her make our requests. It almost guarantees a play.
Jose walks into the office. He’s a small, wiry guy with a boxer’s messy face and gigantic upper arms. He’s always rubbing his quote-unquote cancerous chest around us. It bothered me when I thought he was sick, and it’s intolerable now.
I look at him. “You’re fired.”
“Jim,” Al says sharply to me. He looks at Jose. “You’re not fired.”
“We know you don’t have cancer.”
“Yes,” he says sadly, and rubs his chest harder.
“No, you don’t have cancer. Don’t have it. We know you don’t. Your wife told us you don’t.”
‘my wife?” he says. Then I see his lying eyes understand.
“But you’re not fired,” Al says. “We forgive you.”
Jose looks at Marianne. “It’s okay,” she says meekly. “It’s good you don’t have cancer.”
He looks down at the floor. He stops rubbing his chest and makes a fist.
I want Jose to cry. He cried at my son’s funeral. He cried even harder than I did. It made me feel better at the time. If I could hug him, I think he would cry. When he hugged me at the funeral, I started crying. I might have cried because I thought someone who was dying understood. But I can’t stand up and hug him without giving away one of my secrets.
“It’s okay. Just stop rubbing your fucking chest.”
“Jim,” Al says.
I smile as warmly as I can. Jose looks up cautiously and sees my smile, then walks back into the warehouse. By now ‘desperado’ is playing. None of us has even noticed.
“What was that about?” Al asks me. He’s typing again.
‘maybe you shouldn’t make me think about Tommy.” I look at him, then Marianne. “For future reference.”
We close at six but will leave earlier with the slightest excuse. It’s 5:05. Al wants to interrogate one of his daughters, so we’re done. Al and I carpool with Marianne, who drives painstakingly well. She dropped her son, Wayne, on his head when he was born. It damaged his future, so she’s always very careful with ours. Al’s house is a pint-sized Tudor. There’s a sailboat in his driveway covered with a tarp. It’s the one that took his leg off. His daughter won’t let him sell it. He’s told me several times he wishes someone would steal it. I’ve thought of hiring one of Tommy’s dodgy friends to help. I could sell the boat on eBay to help pay off the monument’s debts. But we’d have to steal the pink slip, which would mean breaking into Al’s house.
Before the accident, I was a real estate agent. I covered part of the Hollywood Hills and did very well. Back then I bought the property just north of ours and had the house razed. I hoped to build expensive condos, but 9/11 ruined the market, and the land has come in handy. I put a fence along the street and took out all the trees and foliage. I thought the monument would fit. My first contractor assured me that it would. But we’ve had to lose most of our yard, and it needs a little piece of my neighbor’s. He’s a widower who never set foot in his yard until I offered to buy it. It’s a wasted half-acre of trees and mowed grass. He won’t be reasonable. That’s what started the ruckus with my neighbors. Before he complained, they used to tell me my son was another Frank Gehry.
Twice every Monday through Friday, Marianne’s car inches by the spot where my Lexus hit a phone pole. I was pinned beneath some wreckage. Tommy flew through the windshield. Fifteen minutes later, we pass the public phone where he dialed 911. Some dispatcher took a call from an incoherent male. I’ve decided it was Tommy, even though we couldn’t ID his voice. Twenty minutes after that, we pass a bus bench where his body was discovered by some strangers. I’ve passed these places so many times that he has almost been erased. Soon his death will lack illustrations or even much of a story. If that was Tommy’s voice on the 911 tape, he couldn’t pronounce what he knew. I know I should have placed him in my car wreck, but I’ve never told a soul. I haven’t even told my wife. I never had to. With his head injury, you wouldn’t live that long. You couldn’t walk that far. Maybe a block, they said. So there was never any question. But I guess he was special. People seem to need tragic strangers in their lives. They’ll superimpose tragedy when there’s nothing to prevent them. Our company’s modest success is an example. Whoever people think killed my son has disappeared into oblivion. I just decided that oblivion was deciding not to walk, fuck, go to the bathroom by myself, or want to do those things again.
Marianne parks her idling car in our driveway and helps me into my wheelchair. We’re squarely in the shadow of the monument-in-progress. It used to resemble a concise roller coaster that had partially collapsed. In the Times article, it was described as a giant piece of inedible candy. Yesterday one of the neighbors called it folk art run amok. When the massive, arched castle-style door is added tomorrow, it should refocus yet again.
“It looks bigger,” Marianne says.
“It’s slightly taller.”
She smiles and waves at the workers. They’re screwing big puzzle pieces of red and yellow skin onto its crazy skeleton. They pause and glare back at her, probably because I’m late again with their paychecks.
“They seem mean,” she says.
“They’re just mad because I’m dicking them around. I’m the one who’s mean.”
“You were a little mean to Jose,” she says.
“No, I was mean to you.”
“You weren’t,” she says reassuringly.
“Then what would you call it?”
She smiles at me. But then she’s always smiling. According to this show I caught one time on TLC, people with low IQs fill in their blanks with an exaggerated warmth.
“Okay, that’s a little mean,” she says.
I can roll myself up the front walk, unlock the door, and push it open unassisted. My wife, Bette, hears my racket and walks into the entrance hall talking on her cell phone. She clicks it off and gives me her ‘something’s wrong” look. It always makes me think she’s figured me out. I can walk a little. That’s one of my secrets. I can walk across a room. It doesn’t even hurt. I discovered that last month. I’m constantly worried that I’ll jiggle a leg or wake up with an erection. I have to sleep on my stomach and monitor my body like a mime.
“Let’s talk,” she says, glancing at her watch. “I’ll start. Dateline NBC is sending some people on Monday morning. Just to look.”
“How did that happen?”
“They called Fred,” she says ominously. “He told Jane, who told me.”
“I called NBC and talked to some assistant to someone,” she says. “He said they were planning to call us today, but I fear their slant. So Jane and I are rallying the wives. That’s where I’m off to now.”
“That’s definitely bad.”
“You should pay the guys today,” she says. “Call Fred and make nice. Ask him not to go into the drugs thing. Ask him to show Tommy that much respect. Say the monument should be weighed on its merits. He’ll understand that. If you have to, mention his drinking.”
“They’ll find out anyway. I’m sure they already have or they wouldn’t be interested.”
“You know my feelings,” she says.
“I know what they were.”
“This is war,” she says. “That’s my feeling. Fred can go fuck himself.”
“Possibly,” she says. She checks her watch.
“A teacher is bringing her class by in the morning. I’m going to show them around and I guess answer questions.”
“We should be videotaping these things,” she says, and starts toward the street. It’s sad. I mean to watch her walk away. I can barely remember how it felt not to worry when or if she would come back.
My contractor is outside the kitchen window. It’s the end of the workday. He’s washing his hands with our garden hose. It’s easier for me to call his cell phone than struggle through the back door. His name is Bill Riley. He’s the otherwise unemployed dad of Tommy’s last and only girlfriend, Mia. He wipes his hands on the legs of his jeans, then unhooks the phone from his utility belt. When he sees my number, he lets himself into the kitchen. I’m at the breakfast table smoking a joint and writing checks. He gets a Budweiser out of the fridge and sits down across from me.
“Can I express an opinion?” he asks. “Father-to-father?”
“Tommy was a good kid,” he says.
“The other day Mia said if she was rich, she’d build her own amusement park,” he says. “And you know why? Because she’s playing RollerCoaster Tycoon. It’s a computer game.”
“I know the game.”
‘so let’s say Mia died tomorrow,” he says. “Would I mortgage my house to build her amusement park? No, because she wouldn’t be here to enjoy it, and it’s probably a whim.”
“And you couldn’t afford it.”
“But maybe I’d say, okay, I’ll build a skateboard park and call it Mia Riley Park,” he says.
I’ve finished writing the checks and push them toward him with a force that makes me realize I’m upset.
‘she draws pictures, too,” he continues. “You could hang them on a wall, and they wouldn’t look half bad. But is she Picasso? No, man, she’s not Picasso. And I loved your kid, but that is not a good building. What kind of building has no insides? Even the Statue of Liberty has some rooms and a staircase. The only reason it’s a building is because you were a real estate agent and you jumped to that conclusion. Any normal person would have had the drawing framed.”
“There were thirty-seven drawings.”
“Or made a book out of them,” he says.
‘mia’s the one who told us it was a building.”
‘she also said Tommy was stoned when he drew them. It’s something a stoned kid would like. When I look at it, I don’t see Tommy. I don’t feel Tommy.”
‘so are you saying you quit?”
“Not necessarily,” he says.
“Then I don’t understand.”
“I guess not,” he says, and puts the checks in his top pocket. “All right, maybe what I’m trying to say is you shouldn’t smoke so much pot.”
“Well, you try living in a wheelchair.”
‘maybe you wouldn’t be in a wheelchair if you didn’t smoke so much pot,” he says. Then he stands up abruptly and heads for the door.
“You didn’t finish your beer.”
I like to sit around our deserted house wishing things were different. That’s how I found out I could walk. I wished my legs could support me, and they did. Now I wish the monument would burn down to the ground. Or I wish I’d hired this company that designs circus tents to create it. I wish I’d thought it was a big enough deal to make Tommy’s art into a costume. If he’d known I would grant his wish, he would have drawn Christina Ricci naked. From what his friends tell me, he just wished he’d been so famous he could fuck her. The space between him and fucking her was immaterial. That’s why he broke so many bones. That’s why he never would have been a Tony Hawk. Every loudmouthed jerk he called a friend seems to have known that about him. I wish they’d respected him more. Or I wish they wouldn’t think I’d feel less lonely if they nit-picked him to death. Or else I wish I did.
I seem to be asleep on the couch. Bette is suddenly above me with a cell phone in her hand. I think it’s an offering. I can see my wheelchair all the way across the room. I must have wished I could walk more than a couple of feet and given it a shot. She could have been there long enough to solve the mystery. That might be our lawyer on the phone explaining why my deception is legal grounds for divorce. I think all these things in a rush while I pretend to need a moment to wake up.
“It’s Fred,” Bette says, then carefully mouths the words “He’s drunk.”
I take the phone. Bette and I share a reassuring cringe. ‘sorry, Fred, what? I was taking a nap.”
“I said this is a courtesy call,” he says.
“Thanks. We should talk more often.”
‘mm,” he says.
“Is this about the Dateline thing?”
‘so you know about that,” he says.
“Can we set some ground rules?”
‘some what?” he says.
“You drink, I smoke grass. If they affect our decisions, that’s nobody’s business, don’t you think?”
“I drink,” he says.
“You’re saying ” I don’t want to sell you my yard ” because I’m a drunk?” he says.
“Let’s say we’re wrong. I’m an overly sentimental dad, and you’re a property owner with rights.”
“I liked your son,” he says. “He used to play in my yard. He loved my yard. I love my yard.”
“Exactly. You’re a guy who loves his yard.”
“Okay, Jim,” he says, and clears his throat. I think he’s going to cry. When people cry within a moment of mentioning Tommy, I cry, too. Even if they’re drunks who don’t mean it.
“Gotta go, Fred.”
Bette pushes my errant wheelchair to the couch. She holds me by the belt loops, then slides my ass from the cushions into its more unstable seat. It’s hard for her because I used to be a horny, jogging, gym-addicted jock. And it’s hard for me to keep my legs completely limp.
“What did I miss?”
“That we’re fucked,” she says. ‘make that raped.”
‘someone at Nintendo saw the Times piece,” she says. “They’re claiming we stole their design. Dateline is doing some kind of special on Nintendo. It’s their whateverth anniversary. Our thing with Fred is just a wacky side segment. They didn’t even know Tommy died. When I told them, they put me on hold. When they came back, I heard laughing in the background. They think the whole monument angle just makes it wackier.”
‘so Tommy stole it?”
“Possibly,” she says. “I’m off to see our lawyer now. And I have a call in to Mia.” She grabs her car keys off the pile of news magazines on our coffee table.
‘maybe it’s good.”
‘meaning what?” she asks.
“I mean, doesn’t wacky sound like heaven?”
She silently mouths what I’ve said. I guess she’s imagining what might have made her say that. It makes her frown and jiggle the car keys.
“Bette, look at me.”
She looks at my legs. About two months ago, they finally lost their old masculine shape and started filling my pants like water. “Okay?” she says testily, and checks her watch.
“Just look at me.”
She crosses her arms and glowers at my legs. “What am I supposed to be seeing?” she asks.