A testosterone fueled adventure through sex and gender, unlike any you’ve seen before featuring a man battling a shark on the cover.
The first thing I notice about T Cooper when we meet on Skype is how much we look alike. T is a thinner, more successful version of myself: we’re nearly the same age—forty, or nearing—and with a “family resemblance” that makes the townies think I’m related to other trans men they’ve seen around town. Peering into the screens, I see that we have the same coloring—olive skin and dark hair—that gets us taken for Spanish speakers in Miami and New York City; the same close set, twinkling eyes, the same worry wrinkles over the nose and around the mouth. We look like a couple of Robert Downey Jrs, stretched and pulled by distorting mirrors. My head is rounder and balder, and I easily outweigh Cooper by forty pounds. I am a lifter gone to seed. I smile more than he does, a nervous trait. Cooper looks lean and ready to fight; it’s easy to imagine his face sandwiched by the headgear that amateur boxers use in the ring.
T Cooper has released his fifth book, Real Man Adventures, through McSweeney’s, a publisher that shares his emphasis on the aesthetic. When have I last held a book like this? I asked myself, holding the brand new review copy. I expect it to smell musty, like it’s spent many idle decades in boxes between admiring generations of ten year olds. I found my father’s in the garage: horror stories, fantasy, science fiction, boys’ adventure stories, magazines and pulps from the Fifties, all in a box that had somehow, magically, found its way here from my grandmother’s house, just when I was ready to receive it. When did it arrive? Was it in the same wave with the boxes of records and pornographic magazines, part of a clean out following the death of my grandfather? At any rate, it was around that time I found them all, and began a new course in my education.
Opening this hardcover book with the “totally gay” illustration (Cooper’s words, not mine) of a nearly naked man battling a shark underwater, you find something similar in tone, but different in content. Instead of punching out sharks while wearing a loincloth, he’s interviewing his wife on the fear they both feel when he enters a gas station men’s room, or extracting from her a list of his most manly traits (self-involvement tops the list). Like the hero on the cover, this, too, is a genre trope, blown up to extremes by the natural exuberance of Cooper’s comic writing style, and I wonder many times in my notes, just how parodic a bildungstransroman I will have to find my way through, to reach the back cover.
It took me almost the whole winter to read T Cooper’s book, not because it is a difficult read in any usual sense, but because of my defensiveness to the subject matter. I’m quite aware that this is a book that, at least in theory, I should be able to write based on my own experience, and envious because I have not. I also know that the reason I haven’t is because I can’t, yet, and I can’t because to be able to tell my story, I have to have digested it.
Writing a book can be the process by which one finally is able to tell the tale and the form in which is becomes fixed. To avoid this fixedness, Cooper enlists the aid of as many voices as possible, so as to avoid being the only voice chronicling the everytransman’s journey. It is not quite memoir, and not even a novel. It contains essays, letters, and interviews. On tour, he enlisted musicians and actors, who also read from his book. There is a “mostly original soundtrack” based on the stories in the book. One track, “F.E.A.R.” is:
For the chapter entitled “Ten Friends’ Fears” (p. 249), which came out of a survey in which I asked ten FTM friends “What, as a transman, is your biggest fear?” and contains responses like “That I’m going to go bald because my mother’s father is,” and “Dying alone or being unlovable, or for people to see me as a monster in nursing home care.”
It nearly mocks the form of the coming out book with its pastiche of First World problems elevated to the point of not only crisis but performance, so that dying alone and male pattern baldness are equivalent in their power to inspire and terrify. His coming out letter might be held up as a model for transitioning youth everywhere, so well does it uphold the conventions of such a document: the good news / bad news expression of a rebellion that still aches for acceptance. This is the very image I have of a typical trans man coming out—of a trans man like myself in as many details as possible: a man who possesses a sufficient quantity of privilege, as well as innate strengths, to not only navigate transition but to begin to heal—that this journey will take its hero closer to home.
And most of all, most dearly like myself, and better than me in that Broadway musical, fun house mirror way, is his ability to document the change with greater contrast than life, the better to illustrate. Cooper does this by being as annoying, self centered, puppyish, and self important as I was in my own transition, and as those of my friends were, who I have been privileged to observe pass through this period. I had to put the book down for weeks at a time, because people in the throes of transition are intense, full of righteousness over social justice on one hand and wanking eight times a day to hard core porn on the other, and feeling just as powerfully about both, depending on when you talk to them. Granted, Cooper isn’t the type to blog about either, and is far more observant, tragicomic, endearing, and wry in the process than any of us managed, even those of us who resisted sharing intimate coming out letters in public, or blogging about our chin hairs. Parents of teens everywhere will understand where I’m coming from; so will twentysomethings engaging with teen literature.
But this is all in T’s book, and it is more than just this, or else it would be as unmoving a portrait of a man in motion as is the hero on the cover. Unlike the real man adventures I unearthed in my father’s garage, T Cooper’s book is full of self consciousness, self examination, and expressions of emotion, and activism, and is inclusive of other voices in an apparently earnest effort at leveling hierarchies of I and Thou, Man and Woman, to networks of experience. It is from this position that Cooper reels to the pace of his journey, a sailor on the rungs of on an exploratory vessel. From here he chronicles both inner and outer journey, not only in his own sights from the crow’s nest but in the voices of those with experience—of age, of parenthood and generations, and of the second adolescence that is transition for the transgender man.
Read the interview: What Real Men Talk About