REVIEW: Mark Cooper Versus America by Lisa Henry & J.A. Rock
Dear Lisa Henry & J.A. Rock,
I enjoyed your Good Boy books, so I was keen to review this book. In many ways this is a far more light-hearted, non-serious book than the earlier stories (except for one aspect which I will discuss later). I had an idea about the main characters from the emails, letters and text messages you posted on your respective blogs in the lead up to Mark Cooper versus America’s release. Those things definitely informed my expectation that this book was more comedic in nature – and certainly there were a few laugh-out-loud moments for me (most particularly in relation to Blake who has a bad habit of becoming locked in toilets. Really).
Mark Cooper is an Australian, from Bundaberg in Queensland, where the weather is warm and tropical and there is never ever any snow. His mother married Jim, an American and they all moved to Pennsylvania. Jim is wealthy and is paying for Mark to attend prestigious Prescott College, his old alma mater, and is more than keen for Mark to join the Alpha Delta fraternity (something Jim did when he was at school and which he regards as incredibly valuable and worthwhile). Alpha Delt (as it is called colloquially) has changed a lot since Jim’s time and it is no longer devoted to community service as it once was. In fact, the guy in charge of the pledges, “Bengal” is dangerous (more on that later).
Mark is… prickly. When he first meets Deacon, the other hero, Deacon thinks of Mark as an “angry bunny”. Mark uses anger/aggression/defensiveness and/or humour as self-protection mechanisms. He is alone, out of his depth and he doesn’t want anyone to know how isolated he feels. If he doesn’t want them, they can’t reject him.
His plan when rushing the fraternity is to be so obnoxious that they will kick him out and he will be able to say to Jim, “hey, I tried”. Jim is largely absent from the book but he is consistently described as “nice”. He is perfectly nice but again, Mark has kept his distance and holds Jim at arm’s length. Over the course of the book, Mark does learn to let some people in and he does mature. That said, he is just turned 18 and he felt authentically that age.
Deacon is 21, a Junior at Prescott. He is a member of the Phi Sigma fraternity, an academic/service based frat which is more about studying and playing Risk for long stretches. The fraternity houses are next door to each other, even though Mark meets Deacon at the bar he works at to help pay for college. There is a Romeo and Juliet vibe – well more than a vibe – it is overtly played up in the story as Alpha Delt and Phi Sig are enemies.
Jackson is Jim’s nephew and a member of Alpha Delt. He makes an effort to befriend Mark, but Mark doesn’t make it easy for him. By the end of the book, I think they are headed there. Mark makes another friend, Brandon at college. Brandon is wicked smart and has an eidetic memory. He has a deeply held belief that he is nothing if he is not in a fraternity and he urges Mark not to quit as a pledge. The friendship between Mark and Brandon is kind of sweet and it was nice to see Mark struggling with being a friend who can be leaned upon, as opposed to always (in his view at least) being the leaner.
The romance between Deacon and Mark is sweet and sexy, with a bit of kink thrown in. Between them, they discover a previously unknown fetish for women’s underwear (Mark wearing it, Deacon fucking him while Mark’s wearing it) and they explore some more extreme “arse play” (coughfistingcough). This might be a little much for those who prefer their m/m less explicit. I coped okay but I admit to cringing in sympathetic pain in some parts. The stuff with the underwear was quite well done I thought – it seemed to me to be very sexy and masculine even while they were playing with gender norms. That doesn’t make much sense does it? Sorry, I can’t explain it any better.
I enjoyed seeing Mark bloom and mature in the time he spent with Deacon and I liked the way he remained himself while he did it.
“So, uh…” Mark swallowed. “I can’t promise you much. I’m not a hopeless romantic, and sometimes I forget that people generally like it when you do nice things for them. I’ve never been anyone’s boyfriend. And I probably could, in my own way, out-douche a lot of the Alpha Delts.” He turned his head slightly and pressed his face against Deacon’s chest. “But I…” He turned again so he wasn’t speaking into Deacon’s T-shirt. “But you don’t have to be afraid to tell me anything. Because I won’t judge you for it. And you don’t have to worry about not seeming like a good guy in front of me. Because I guarantee I’ve been a worse guy. And if you need anything from me, just ask. I’m not the best at figuring out what people need on my own. But if you tell me, I’ll try to give it. That’s what I can promise you.”
Deacon has his own problems too – his mother has severe OCD and he has a brother in Afghanistan. Deacon is level-headed and very much the protector. During the course of the book he reflects on this and realises that he does have a need to be needed. But he also realises that’s okay. One of the things that make he and Mark a good pair is that Mark helps him remember to be young and have fun and Deacon helps Mark be a bit more responsible – as concept they name as “reasonably stupid”. Deacon is very aware he’s not Mark’s dad and he doesn’t want to be so it always seemed to be a healthy balance to me. I thought the way the story captured Deacon’s complicated feelings about his brother coming home was wonderful and spot on. I could definitely relate. I also thought his mother’s OCD was handled well. It was a depicted as a serious and debilitating illness but his mother wasn’t helpless or unable to be his mother. And Deacon’s complicated feelings about his mother’s illness made sense to me too.
And his thoughts about his mother were often far from selfless. He’d told her to call him anytime she felt worried. What he’d meant was Please don’t need to call. Please just be okay.
Deacon’s family situation and Mark’s isolation are of course, serious matters. But they didn’t make the book feel heavy and I felt the overall tone was upbeat and sweetly fun.
That said, there is a more serious aspect to the story. I confess I’m having trouble deciding what I think about it. In part I think it’s because the rest of the book is fairly light-hearted and comedic and in part because most of the bad stuff happens off page or at somewhat of a distance. The hazing that Bengal puts the Alpha Delt pledges through is… not okay. In particular, there is something involving Brandon (who has his own particular vulnerability) which goes beyond that (ie it is not legal). (And, just because Brandon is a bit more vulnerable than the other pledges, it wouldn’t have been acceptable if it were done to others and not to him. That is; whoever it was done to: totally not okay.)
On the one hand, the narrative clearly states that this is NOT OKAY. Mark urges Brandon to go to the college authorities (at the least) about it but Brandon refuses. Mark feels guilty because he doesn’t take any action himself but he’s torn between doing the right thing, keeping a confidence to a friend at that friend’s specific request and the pledge of secrecy made to the fraternity. Even though he thinks most of the fraternity stuff is bullshit, he still gets kind of caught up in it. (And, in the end, Mark finds value and brotherhood in the fraternity – although never with Bengal.)
The other thing is that the pledges have the choice of walking away and quitting. Does this mean they volunteer for mistreatment? I don’t think so. And peer pressure is a huge thing. Plus in Brandon’s case as well, it’s a massive deal to his dad that he get into a fraternity. It’s not that the pledges are “forced” exactly. But I’m uncomfortable where the line is between willing participant and victim of crime. And by that, I mean it seems to me that the members of Alpha Delt had a great deal of trouble working out where that line was and I don’t think they got it right. With at least with the lesser stuff, Mark explicitly states that he allowed it. Brandon feels this too. But there is a tension between this and the acknowledgement of just about everyone as well as the narrative, that humiliating people is not a good thing and at least some of it is downright illegal.
Bengal does get a comeuppance – I don’t think it was enough though and, more disappointingly, it comes as a result of something which I felt was less severe than what happened with Brandon. Perhaps it was meant to be a more cumulative thing but frankly, (and even Mark says this earlier on in the book) what he’d already done was way past enough. No-one in the fraternity likes Bengal but he’s allowed to get away with increasingly bad behaviour and mistreatment of the pledges. And no-one else in the fraternity wore any consequences for their inaction at all. Perhaps I’m the wrong person to comment on this because I’m Australian and I have virtually no idea about fraternities/sororities. The whole hazing thing just seems silly and ridiculous to me and I don’t know why anyone would want to put themselves through it.
There are perhaps broader questions too (questions to which I don’t have answers). Does a book have an obligation to provide the ideal moral/legal outcome in a story? Does it merely have to be believable? Or show an experience in a believable manner? What obligation does a book have in the wider social context when it comes to things such as hazing? (I have deliberately chosen to use the term hazing so has not to give away spoilers.) Is it enough to merely show it exists and/or that life is messy and often far from ideal and/or allow the reader to make up his/her own mind? Or is it obliged to show a path of moral good leading out of it? Is “obligation” even the right word?
Maybe I should have reacted more strongly to this aspect of the book. Maybe others will. I’m still trying to parse all the things. When I focus on the hazing (which I did not like – but I don’t think I was supposed to) I am uncomfortable and feel like I ought to be feeling more outrage than I currently do (and that somehow I should be ashamed about not being more upset by it).
I enjoyed the book. I thought Mark and Deacon were sweet and I liked Brandon and Blake (who is the stereotypical dumb jock – he really does get stuck in toilet cubicles a lot – but he also doesn’t bat an eyelash when Mark comes out to him either so he’s not entirely stereotypical) and I liked that generally, the people in the book were very accepting of homosexuality.
I loved the Australian v. America stuff. How in America you can’t order a “flat white” coffee (which, for those who don’t know, is an espresso coffee with milk, no foam, but not a latte which has way more milk) and how “football” is gridiron in the US and football here is, depending on which state you live in, either Rugby League (Queensland, New South Wales) or AFL (South Australia, Western Australia, Victoria).
Mark sighed, pulling some bills out of his wallet. “Jesus, all your money is the same color, and I never know what to tip.”
“Fifteen percent usually covers it,” Brandon said.
Mark rolled his eyes. “Bran. I just ate half a pizza and a whole garlic bread. The only thing stopping me from curling up and falling asleep like a happy fat puppy is the fact that I have to have smoking-hot phone sex in a minute.” He smiled at the lady in the next booth. “I cannot be expected to do maths at a time like this.”
“Nobody’s expecting you to do maths. Math, maybe.”
“Oh, come on.”
“Why would you add an s to math?”
“Because that’s how you say it.”
Brandon picked up one of the bills and passed it back to him. “You are the weirdest person I know.”
The vernacular is used very well – I assume Lisa Henry wrote those bits, being as you are Australian. This fish-out-of-water story had moments of both humour and poignancy (especially the conversation about the stars).
I liked it. It made me laugh and it made me think. Grade: B.