Sex and death go hand-in-hand in Carolyn Cooke’s new book. Many of the 11 stories in this collection explore the inflamed needs of fading bodies. But Cooke’s wit and heart enliven such somber material. Her clear, careful prose communicates understanding without resorting to cynicism or sentimentality.
In Francis Bacon, we are transported back to the 1980s, when Penthouse founder Bob Guccione ran his $300 million slice of the skin trade from the breast-and-testicle-adorned confines of his garish Upper East Side mansion. The narrator writes for the magazine; she arouses with words, not photos: “I would create implausible erotic monologues . . . that suggested unspeakably childish innocence.”
During an editorial meeting at his pleasure palace, Guccione shows off his latest acquisition, a Francis Bacon, which he admires for its brash depiction of “orifices.” But like Bertolucci, who used two of Bacon’s paintings for the opening credits of Last Tango in Paris, the narrator knows that decay and distortion were the master’s real themes, a macabre mix that will cast a pall over Guccione’s world as the AIDs epidemic intensifies.
Cancer is another disease that befalls Cooke’s characters. Isle of Wigs is a moving study of an elderly Jewish lady in her last days, reminiscent of Tillie Olsen’s classic novella, Tell Me a Riddle. Sura undergoes intensive chemotherapy in a desperate attempt to buy more time. As she tries to lead some semblance of a normal life, she recalls her past, a diversion the futureless can indulge.
The 9-year-old girl in Opal Is Evidence, however, had everything before her until she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After her failed operation, she is brought to a yurt by her pot-smoking mother, where they perform an Indian ritual. The story has a promising beginning, but it loses focus and energy.
The three-part title story is better. It follows three females: Psyche (renamed “Psycho” by the mean girls at her school), a teenage freestyle poet whose boyfriend committed suicide; Babe, the suicide’s mother; and Georgie, Babe’s best friend, a breast cancer patient who arranges a one-night stand with a virtual stranger. Not the usual circumstances for her, but as Cooke puts it, “the usual circumstances had been fed eight doses of taximofen and then irradiated.”
In The Boundary an art teacher at a low-income school reaches out to a troubled Native American child who likes Muslims “because they scare the white guys.” After her good intentions backfire, she visits her estranged sister in Africa, who is tending to rape victims with destroyed uteruses. One of Cooke’s finest stories, it is an ingenious survey of the “red zones in human relations,” the lines around which are erased at one’s peril.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.