Dennis Cooper has so fearlessly mined the emotional and sexual extremes of a drug-addled, violence-craving netherworld that his new novella feels like a whiplash departure. God Jr. explores one crumbling family failing to deal with their teenage son’s death—the wheelchair-bound father drifting into folk-art enigma, the mother distancing herself from her injury-impotent husband, and both disappearing into marijuana’s fog as completely as humanly possible.
Very quickly into God Jr., though, all of Cooper’s hallmarks slap you in the face. His prose possesses a butcher’s precision for calm viciousness, and this three-part story is one equanimous gut-punch after another. Jim killed his son Tommy and crippled himself in a car accident—and the only reason he’s not in jail for vehicular manslaughter, as his lawyer constantly reminds him, is that after Tommy flew through the windshield he was somehow able to wander a 35-minute car drive from the accident site and die on a bus bench. Jim works at Little Evening Out, which makes children’s clothing for special occasions, and was founded by a one-legged Vietnam veteran who only employs those physically afflicted with some life-altering condition—obese, learning-disabled Marianne, the gunshot-wound paraplegic Manuel, and Jose with the terminal cancer.
The callous, perhaps no-longer-paralyzed Jim assuages his guilt with joint after joint and building a Watts Tower-esque edifice that his son designed in his backyard. He’s even hired a contractor to finish the thing, which is bringing Jim and his wife, Bette, media attention. Bette and Jim wouldn’t mind the coverage that much if the construction costs weren’t driving a wedge between the already estranged couple—or if they hadn’t just discovered that Tommy’s design wasn’t something he copied from an upper level of the video game he spent hours and hours playing. Desperate to find some meaning to this creation that controls his life, Jim dives into the role-playing game himself, further distancing himself from an existence he can no longer navigate without calamity.
A streamlined plunge into grief’s dark night, God Jr. turns into a harrowing narrative nesting egg of denial, confusion, delusion, and deals people make with themselves to keep from freaking out for one more hour. Jim’s dedication to the game becomes an Albert Camus-qua-Philip K. Dick fantasy of metaphysical bargaining, as Jim talks with the game’s characters about Tommy’s death in ways he can’t with living people. It may sound like a painfully mannered conceit, but Cooper’s unflinching sentences carve this fascinatingly depressing story in granite, and by its weirdly ethereal close your heart plummets like a stone.