Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Bill From My Father by Bernard Cooper








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All children look to parents for approval, and most receive it. Bernard Cooper’s father, Edward, was a different kind of father. In his memoir, The Bill From My Father, Cooper tells his family stories, and readers become involved in lives that are unusual, to say the least. Thanks to Cooper’s fine writing, the underlying pain in the book becomes tempered. Bernard never stops loving his father, and in many ways, never stops looking for approval, despite Edward’s frustrating behavior. One comes away wondering how Edward would have written the story. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the chapter titled, “Winner Take Nothing,” pp. 121-127:


When I received word informing me that my first book had been chosen for the PEN Ernest Hemingway Award, I held the letter in trembling hands while the following thoughts, in precisely this order, shot through my head:


1. I won the Ernest Hemingway Award!

2. I don’t deserve it.

3. My father’s heard of Ernest Hemingway!


I ran a couple of laps around the house, elated not just because of the letter, but because I remembered seeing a hardback volume of The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories on the shelves in my father’s upstairs hail. Perhaps the book had belonged to one of my brothers, or was left behind by Anna. In any case, a book by the award’s name­sake was shelved right there in Dad’s very own home library, which would, as far as he was concerned, lend credence to the whole affair.

I had to admit that my father had managed perfectly well with­out literature for the past eighty—six years, and I had no illusions that writing, especially mine, could enrich his life. He sometimes read Consumer Reports, but largely, I think, to sustain through retirement the image he had of himself as a citizen with buying power. His pri­mary reading material was TV Guide, a map by which he and Betty navigated nights in front of the Sony console, watching Wheel of For­tune, followed by the healings of Reverend Benny Hinn. In the few instances I told him I’d had something published in a magazine or literary review, the first question he asked was, “How much they pay you?” I suppose he thought “they” were a faceless jury, twelve arbiters of taste. Imagine telling a man who keeps his cash in a gold money clip shaped like a dollar sign that, after working on a piece of writing for months, you’ve been compensated with a complimen­tary copy of the publication. “You’re kidding,” he’d say, shaking his head as if I’d been duped in a shell game.

Over time, I’d cultivated a certain temperance when sharing lit­erary news with my father. I’d come to consider it unfortunate, but not devastating, that he was unable to recognize the arc—or was it the bump?—of my career. Still, I ached to have him slap me on the back, wanted to hear his unstinting praise, and in it the honeyed pro­nouncement: son.

Toward this end, I’d once given him something of mine to read. I chose a brief reminiscence about my mother, who had once dreamed of writing a book into which she’d pack every anecdote she could recall, starting with her immigration from Russia to the United States. Immigration isn’t quite the right word; what she told me was that she and her parents swam across the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of North America when she was two. I was young enough at the time to believe such a feat was possible, and my credulity inspired her to add that if the “authorities” ever discovered she’d entered the country illegally, they’d knock on our door and deport her, and that’s why she never applied for a driver’s license. Needless to say, my grat­itude for having a mother grew instantly acute. I thought my father would find the tone of this reminiscence unmistakably fond. And so I handed him the pages one day, neatly stapled. Before I let go of the manuscript (feeling him tug it from the other side was the closest I’d come to his tangible enthusiasm), I told him I hoped he’d enjoy read­ing it and assured him he was under no obligation to offer comments.

Days went by. Weeks. Months. In all the times we saw each other or spoke on the phone, he never mentioned reading it, and pride prevented me from coming right out and asking. If it hadn’t been for a chokingly potent vodka tonic I drank when we met for dinner one night at the Brass Pan, I may not have asked him to this day.

“Hey, Dad. You’ve never mentioned the essay I wrote about Mom.” He peered at me over his bifocals. In the dim light of the restaurant, he looked anything but adversarial. “Well,” he sighed, “what can I tell you? You wrote down your opinion.”

I stirred the booze with a swizzle stick and took another swig.



My father wasn’t the first person I called about the award (I reached Brian during his break between clients, and then made short work of my address book), but when I dialed Dad’s number and told him the news, his “Oh” was as round and buoyant as a bubble.

In my excitement, however, I’d overlooked one crucial hitch: now that it had been deemed worthy by a panel of judges, my father might decide to read the book—specifically the passage where I mentioned his affairs while married to my mother. If only I’d used a pseudonym or the putty nose of fiction, but the man was unmis­takable, the ink completely dry.

Sure enough, once my father learned of the award, he phoned several local bookstores and, to my relief, was told that my book, which had been in print for several months, had sold out. Little did he know that the bookstores had ordered only a couple of copies in the first place, one or both of which had been bought by my friends. I wasn’t about to disabuse him of the idea that my fame was a wave that swept through the city, washing my work from the shelves. I told him the publisher was planning another print run that would be available after the PEN ceremony in New York. By lying, I’d bought myself more time to plan the least upsetting way to let him know he appeared in the book. Should he react badly, at least I wouldn’t arrive at the ceremony feeling defeated. No, defeat would have to wait until after I received the award.

A few days later my father and I were talking on the phone about my plan to buy a suit for the big night, and though it usually made me bristle when he gave unsolicited advice, I listened with pleasure to his description of the dress code that prevailed in the courtroom, and to his suggestion that I try a men’s store downtown I was sure had long ago gone out of business. “Listen,” he said, “we’ll fly to New York together, share a room, and take in some Broadway shows. Betty will take care of things while I’m gone. To tell you the truth, I could use a break from her, and probably so could she from me.” I was stunned by his offer, and more than a little touched. Since he had no compunction about expressing bemusement at my small successes, it never occurred to me that he might need to take an active part in my large ones.

I didn’t know what to say. Without Betty there to monitor his diet and medications, the responsibility for his well-being would fall to me, and I didn’t want to be encumbered. Not on this trip. Besides, Brian had booked our flights and hotel room weeks ago.

“Nothing could make me happier than knowing you’re proud of me,” I told him, “but I’m only going to be in New York for three days.” I explained that I’d made plans to see a couple of old friends and had promised to read for a creative writing class. As terrific as a trip with him sounded, I wouldn’t have time to go to Broadway shows or give him the attention he deserved. Although his gout was finally under control, he still walked slowly and tired easily, and I suggested that Manhattan might not be the best city for him to visit until he had less trouble getting around. “Tell you what,” I said. “Let me take you and Betty to the Brass Pan just as soon as we get back. That way the four of us can relax and celebrate properly”

After I stopped talking, I gave my little speech high marks; it had been a good mixture of respect and autonomy. But the longer he remained silent, the more aware I became of the telephone’s static, a sound growing vast, oceanic. “Dad?”

“Fine,” he said. “If that’s what you want.”



Brian gave me his window seat as soon as we reached cruising alti­tude. I thought that looking out the window might make me less claustrophobic, but no matter where I sat, the plane seemed to stay aloft solely because of my death grip on the armrests. When panic finally gave way to the Valium I’d taken twenty minutes before take­off, my hands and feet grew rubbery, the view of earth abstract.

Once we were inside the terminal at JFK, it finally dawned on me that I’d survived the flight to receive an award. Luggage spilled onto a carousel. Sunlight burned through a bank of windows and warmed the glaring terrazzo floor. Outside, people swarmed toward a fleet of cabs and were whisked away to meetings and reunions. Possibility charged the air, dense, electric. In my happiness I turned to Brian and faced my father.

At first I thought I might be drugged or dreaming, though by then, only the mildest trace of Valium remained in my system. I looked at him and couldn’t speak. The entire busy terminal con­tracted to a point the size of his face. Was he omnipresent like Santa Claus or God? Dad looked back and blithely smiled.

“Surprise,” he said.

“How . . . ?“ I sputtered.

“Your plane. I went first class.”

Suddenly I understood that all the questions he’d asked about the details of my trip—time of departure, name of the airline— questions I’d interpreted as paternal concern, were part of a per­fectly executed plan.

Brian, who at first had been as stunned as I, rushed in to fill the conspicuous silence. He shook my father’s hand. “Are you staying at our hotel?” he asked.

I recalled with a start that Brian had booked rooms at a gay bed-and-breakfast.

“I’m at the Warwick,” said my father. “Quite a fancy place, according to the automobile club.” Two familiar carryalls were mak­ing aimless circles in the periphery of my vision, and before I knew what I was doing, I yanked them off the carousel and threw one over each shoulder. “We’re going,” I announced, a decision I’d regret within minutes. I marched toward the taxi stand.

“Bernard!” shouted Brian, dashing after me.

“Share a ride?” my father shouted.

I didn’t look back.



The cab rattled like an earthquake, the driver barely missing other vehicles as he swerved from lane to lane. If this Caddy had another coat of paint, my father liked to say after a close call, we would have been in an accident! He could be funny my father, which made me a heel for leaving him at the airport. But he’d gone ahead and followed me to New York. If he and I weren’t going to sleep in adjacent beds and take in the town like sailors on shore leave, we were going to arrive on the same flight, split a cab, and share who knew what other adventures. It wasn’t that he was “eccentric,” as the jacket copy of my book (a book whose publication I was in no mood to celebrate) claimed; he was unpredictable, capable of acts that were unimagin­able until they happened. I’d spent much of my life having to appease or second-guess him, and look where a stab at indepen­dence had gotten me: grinding my teeth in the back of a cab, vacil­lating between guilt and fury while Manhattan slipped past the windows, unseen.

Once we settled into our hotel room, with the faux hominess of its antique furniture and antimacassars, I took a shower and tried to gather my thoughts. Pelted by hot water, I returned to what was left of my senses and began to worry that I’d acted rashly Had I been a different person, I might have poked my father in the ribs and teased him for being a stubborn coot. But in order to be a different person I’d have to have been raised by a different dad. The one I had was an old Jewish genie who materialized wherever he willed and granted any wish—as long as it was his.

After changing into fresh clothes, I called the Warwick. My father answered on the second ring. Allowing himself to sound upset would have presumed he’d done something wrong, and so it was to his advantage to act as if nothing unusual had happened. “Hey there,” he said.

“We’d better have a talk, Dad.”

“It’s your dime.”

“I thought you understood that I wanted to do this on my own.”

“Fine. I’ll pack up my goddamn bags and go home.”

“No. I want you to stay now that you’re here. I’m just trying to explain why I reacted the way I did at the airport.”

“So now you explained it. Is that what you wanted to talk about?”

There had to be more. In the shower, I’d rehearsed ways to tell him that his surprise was an intrusion disguised as kindness, a suc­cess usurped. But now, I couldn’t recall what I’d wanted to say, or why each of us always found it so important to win the other’s capit­ulation. After all was said and done, my father had come here because he was proud of me.

“We’ll have lunch tomorrow,” he said.


The title of The Bill From My Father refers to an itemized statement that Bernard received from his father billing him for his upbringing, at a cost of two million dollars. No matter what relationship you have had with your father, The Bill From My Father will tell you about unusual lives and extraordinary behavior that would never be believed in a novel.


Steve Hopkins, March 23, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the April 2006 issue of Executive Times


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