Maps to Anywhere

MAPS TO ANYWHERE is a verbal color chart. Its essays are colorful, idiomatically rendered sketches based on recalled impressions and incidents. Variation, rather than traditional narrative, is the unifying principle Cooper uses to construct his book. It is likely that Cooper himself would approve of this analogy. He refers several times, in passing, to his boyhood interest in architecture. Landscapes and building of every variety appear in each selection. They constitute exponents which give coherence to a multiplicity of subjects. They unify impressions which are as heterogeneous as the California settings he describes.

The collection has eight primary “colors,” verbal “movements” within which Cooper groups short variations or changed perspectives on the major experience. “Beacons Burning Down” is, for example, a phrase retained from an unsatisfying play the author once attended. Cooper salvages the phrase to describe the essential loss which characterizes living. Often such losses are trivial, a missed opportunity to answer a radio quiz question correctly. Sometimes, as in the “Atlantis” section, they encompass whole continents of environment: Nick the barber, who never leaves his shop; Herbert Morris, whose emotional reporting of the Hindenburg disaster resulted in his being fired.

The core of Cooper’s book involves growing up in a comfortable Bel Air, California, home. Against this Edenic landscape, one detects real unhappiness: the love affairs of a prosperous attorney-father; the frustrations of a housebound mother; the premature death of a younger brother. Details, such as the author’s childhood acting class and a teacher’s chance question regarding his terminally ill brother’s career plans, become the background which elucidates theme. The accommodations which the author reaches, with his father and above all with himself, constitute the stuff which makes a life.