The Bill From My Father is not just about Los Angeles author Bernard Cooper's fraught and often difficult relationship with his father, Edward, but also about thirty-something Bernard's own life while struggling to become a published writer. It is an exquisitely written account of the formative years of Bernard's life, where he desired and even sought out approval from his cantankerous, argumentative and often irritable old man.
Personal and intimate, this memoir is about the man who raised Bernard, who ate at the family table, paid out the utility bills, and slept in the same bed as his mother: "were we father and son I sometimes wondered, or merely strangers who answered to those terms." Strangely enigmatic, Edward was indeed a contradictory force. Infidelity was pretty natural for him, yet he was also remarkably accepting of his son's sexual orientation and even later in life befriended Brian, Bernard's long-term therapist partner.
Prone to being ornery and to bouts of explosive rage, his anger was a product of his eccentricity. Edward could rally a bullish strength whenever he felt threatened, and his mischief was always getting the line between antics and madness exactly right. He also championed underdog - a crusader for civil rights, he fought for the the right of a San Bernadino housewife to charge people admission to take a peek at her living chicken dinner, or the right of parents to keep their underaged daughter locked in her bedroom.
The centerpiece of the memoir is Bernard's ultimate retribution from his father in the form of a supposed bill, an actual invoice for $2 million—his rough estimate of what his son's life cost him through age 28. It is the final insult in a long career of incidents and occurrences from this unkind and penny-pinching man. Edward believed paying even the smallest bill might make him appear weak or defeated - "debt rather than humiliating him, proved his triumph over the importunings of authority, and over the great tyranny of money itself."
With his father's health gradually declining and his emotional well-being slipping away, the narrative centers on Bernard's efforts to care for him. With the death of his other three sons and only Bernard left, Edward's losses – combined with his failed marriages – seem to mentally deform him. He settles ever more deeply into brooding silence, a silence breached infrequently by explosive and unpredictable raging.
The Bill From My Father is a complex portrait of a man who seemed to replace grief with a full-time vendetta, and "whose shapeless rage was divided into files." All that is left for Bernard is a brusque, evasive, almost callous sort of love that often proved to difficult for him to bear for too long. Yet Edward and Bernard, whether they liked it or not, were entangled as father and son, caught up in an unlimited net of human failings where truth floats in a misty limbo, dormant until it is spoken aloud
Bernard is often puzzled how he can love such a man, considering he was a father who, from the outset, looked down on his youngest son's literary ambitions and disparaged him for not being interested in a "ligitimate" job. Even after Edward has passed on, his "brusque rejoinders and knotty logic" continue to thrive in his son's mind.
This is a lovely, eloquently written memoir about a father and son at critical moments in their lives, either unaware or often unable to acknowledge their own shortcomings. And the fact that Bernard Cooper can weave such a lyrical tale of the small dramas from such mundane and everyday events is a testament to his profound talent as a writer.