A couple years ago a writer I knew was judging a fiction contest and said that the prize was going to a book of personal essays.

You can’t do that, I said. Fiction is fictional and essays are not. Period.

But, said the writer, this essay collection–Maps to Anywhere by Bernard Cooper–was the only book that the judges could agree on. They all loved it. And well, she said, these essays were different.

I held my tongue. I chalked up the giving of the prize–the 1991 Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award–to a growing and lamentable trend: writers blurring the distinction between the real and the imagined. These days everybody seems to be writing memoirs and personal essays (especially poets, who are realizing that people still read nonfiction at least), and their rank includes apologists who argue that it doesn’t matter so much what really happened. Once you try to reconstruct an event, these people claim, your brain goes into fiction mode anyway.

I was churning through all these thoughts when I finally picked up Maps to Anywhere. Amazingly enough, as I read it I could see what my writer friend meant.

The book is a poetic, quirky collection of memories, stories, and speculations. You could argue, I guess, that the musings are true because they’re his real thoughts–or that they belong in the territory of fiction because they involve characters. But what if the characters are real but also symbolic?

For example, Cooper has a short, rich piece called “The origin of Roget’s Thesaurus.” It describes Dr. Roget’s careful attention to the maid and the family dinner she’s serving. He tries to sort out the various smells and his feelings: “What precisely is this sensation, this suffusion of fragrance, appetite, lust? What rubric or term or adjective could capture it? He thinks delicious. No, delightful. Then the panorama of pleasantness opens in his brain: Pleasing, enchanting, appealing, a vast and verdant country. . . . Door by door, word by word, an entire lexicon will be discovered.”

Perhaps this account is accurate. Perhaps Cooper read a revealing biography of Roget. But I doubt it. I read the piece as Cooper’s exploration of the search to name, the search to understand. If we could only name every phenomenon we encounter, every nuance, then we would be wise–or at least have more ways of telling the universe we love it. It makes perfect sense in the world of this book: in an earlier essay Cooper describes his devotion to language and names and his youthful ambition “to be the man who got to name the paint chips at Bromley’s Hardware.”

But his Roget essay doesn’t end with the tantalizing thought that the thesaurus grew out of a lush secret world. The essay continues its leap with Cooper’s address to a lover: “What tenuous connections, what tributaries of association brought me from the landscape in Roget’s brain to your body beyond the limits of land? What convoluted currents of chance, what chain reaction of history took me drifting from my boyhood on the coast of California and propelled me to you, here in this bed in this vessel on the black undulating ocean, to this very second when I can’t stop thinking, synapses flashing like stars, the doors in my head opening, opening, the wind of my words against your back: supple, tractable, bendable, mutable . . . ”

The book moves by association, veers off into anecdote and meditation and whatever lies in between. There’s a piece about a ventriloquist and his cross-eyed wife that reads like a tiny, dreamy prose-poem fairy tale–except that the reader realizes that they’re friends of Cooper’s parents introduced in an earlier essay. Cooper’s just looking at them a different way here.

In another essay Cooper plays with the truth, spinning a romantic tale set in Venice, complete with a handsome stranger. The man and Cooper try to communicate and fall instantly in love. The story ends abruptly with Cooper’s confession that he made it up, he’s never been to Venice. But, he explains, “lies are filled with modulations of untranslatable truth.” He claims he was under the influence of this morning’s “Chianti sun” and wanted “to take you with me somewhere, somewhere old and beautiful.”

The longer, more autobiographical pieces work as memoir–verifiable even, and funny in parts. In one, Cooper refers to newspaper and magazine clippings about a famous case that his father, a lawyer, tried. It involved a headless chicken named Lazarus who was bought for food, nursed to a semblance of health, and then nabbed by the SPCA. The piece is built of individually titled vignettes; it’s up to the reader to make the connections between them, to link Lazarus to telephone tricks to Cooper’s father’s heart surgery to Cooper’s thoughts on memorializing his mother’s life. As in most of the pieces, it comes to this: words are weapons against mortality.

Running through the book are references to the death of Cooper’s brother Gary, from leukemia. The last long piece, “The House of the Future,” gets its title from the Disneyland exhibit that the 12-year-old Bernard adores. He praises the “durability of plastic” while at home his older brother grows paler and thinner. The memoir ends after the brother’s funeral, with a brief meditation on another house of the future–death.

But Cooper’s sharp observations and self-irony keep that essay and the rest of the book from unrelieved heaviness.

His second book, just published, is somewhat autobiographical, telling about a year in the life of an 11-year-old discovering his gay sexuality as his brother is dying of leukemia. I haven’t read it yet. The Boston Globe’s enthusiastic review called it a “humorous, profound tale of love and loss,” “breathtakingly written,” reminiscent of Truman Capote’s early work.

Cooper will read from A Year of Rhymes at 7:30 on Thursday, September 16, at Unabridged Books, 3251 N. Broadway. It’s free. Call 883-9119 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jerry Bauer.