American Culture

Cooper: Hilary Masters’ meditation on flying and freedom…

What makes Cooper an engrossing read is Hilary Masters’ coupling of a meditation on marriage and love with a meditation on flying and freedom.

Sometimes Facebook actually offers something good.

Cooper by Hilary Masters (image courtesy Amazon)

That shocking statement comes as a result of having friends like Wufnik on FB. Wuf is one of those people whose tastes in reading are inevitably enviable. He posted a status bemoaning the fact that somehow he had missed the news of the death of the writer Hilary Masters, son of American poet Edgar Lee Masters (he of Spoon River Anthology fame), and a very fine writer on his own recognizance. I vaguely rememmbered having read a story or two by Masters somewhere in the misty past of my misspent life of reading and writing because I think these matters are important. So naturally since I have spent this year sort of messing about with my annual reading list, I immediately decided to add something from Masters to my stack.

Wufnik recommended two, three, maybe four titles. Cooper for whatever reasons grabbed my attention so it was off to my favorite used book clearing house site to seek out a copy. It came in a few days, and I was delighted to see I got a first edition hard copy. Sweet. I dove in and, despite a rather busy schedule these days with work, finished last Monday. Of course, I got sidetracked by a couple of issues (which you can read about here and here), so I’m just getting to writing an essay on this interesting work – well, right now.

Cooper is the story of Jack Cooper, a used/rare magazine store owner and kinda/sorta writer. The used magazines play a role in the narrative, and Cooper’s writing is featured in an important subplot. But mainly Cooper is the story of a marriage and a family: Jack Cooper, his wife Ruth, a frustrated poet whose demons occasionally lead her stray, and their adopted son Hal, a mentally challenged youth whose love for his parents is superseded only, perhaps, by his love for flight.

Over the course of Cooper, which will remind some readers slightly of Updike’s “domestic” novels (only gentler and less hormonally driven), Jack Cooper comes to terms with his wife’s infidelities, is tempted to infidelity himself by a New York editor who takes an interest in his writing, and copes with his son’s adolescence and desire to break free of the bonds that his mental challenges place on him and his parents.

There are also themes of rural vs. urban life (the Coopers have moved from NYC to an sall upstate village called Hammertown), art vs. commerce (Ruth’s poetry is good, but no one reads poetry, so she struggles in a world of small rewards and little recognition while Jack is almost – almost – swept into the world of “big book” commercial success as an author of an adventure tale), and memoir vs. fiction (an interesting theme for Masters to explore for despite the quality of his novels he was most famous for his memoir Last Stands: Notes from Memory which recounted his ambivalent relationship with his famous but distant father).  In each of these areas he offers deep insights.

Here, for instance, he captures the character of literary culture, especially what we’d call “MFA culture,” the problematic system of academia supported literary work, in a description of a poetry reading:

It was an audience made up largely of poets, each member carrying a notebook or a folded typescript that contained contributions for the symposium. The poems were solemn and accompanied by narratives that were sometimes longer than the poems they introduced. More interesting, too, Cooper would think….

And the plight of the city person who has moved to more rural environs, even if for good reason, he conveys with this evocative passage:

But he also carried with him into New York that sense of loss a former city man anticipates for the places and byways that have vanished and been replaced almost overnight so that walking through a once-familiar neighborhood can make for a peculiar disenfranchisement with each awkward step.

Finally, in the unraveling of the “Cooper as writer” subplot, there is this passage. It comes from an old man, a flying ace during WWI, a barnstormer in the twenties, and a flyer for the the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. In the course of writing to him about old magazines the old flyer is seeking, he and Cooper have become a correspondents. With each successive chapter of his memoir of his flying career that the old man sends, Cooper becomes less and less able to continue the adventure novel about a flyer doing espionage work whose companion is an orangutan who serves as his tail gunner. In a sort of oblique nod to Masters’ own career, Jack Cooper realizes that memoir may trump even the most engaging fiction. As the old man tells about newer, better technology being brought to bear in the war in Spain, this chilling, eerily prescient, passage appears:

There’s a ‘last chance’ for every generation and that last chance has to be defended by the machinery of its time. …but for us …this last chance for freedom is about to be overcome by machinery from the future…. Somehow, freedom has not kept up with the machinery thrown against it.

The novel ends, as good fiction sometimes does, with resolutions that are ambiguous and haunting. Cooper’s champion, an editor at a prestigious publishing house in New York, is ousted from her post and deserts him to pursue her own career dreams in California. His marriage to Ruth has come slowly out of its slough of despair but at a high price: their son Hal, befriended by a lonely carpenter who teaches him his craft, builds a set of wings and goes gliding off the side of a mountain where he soars, beautiful and free from his earthly challenges and limitations, for a while. But, like Icarus, he eventually crashes to earth and presumably dies as the cost for experiencing that freedom. This event seems to make both Jack Cooper and his wife Ruth realize that they have not appreciated what they have had and have.

Hal’s triumph – and death – leaves them – and readers – with a difficult question to consider at the novel’s end: is it better to be free, even if just for a little while, if the cost is one’s life?