In a 2013 interview on Sirius XM, Anderson Cooper — the television personality and descendant of a line of shipping magnates, millionaire equestrians and renowned fashionistas — admitted, quite humbly, to feeling like “an outsider”… at least as an adolescent.
“If you feel like an outsider, you tend to observe things a lot more,” he said. “Early on I felt very much like an observer, because I knew I was gay, I knew I was somehow different.”
Truth is, we all feel like outsiders; some of us briefly, some of us for the long haul, most of us on and off throughout our lives as we navigate the rugged terrain of existence. Even Cooper, with his money and privilege and strong jawline, felt a sense of otherness. (The insider’s outsider, perhaps?)
We’re all scared we don’t quite fit — it’s just part of the human condition.
This is the throughline of Boulder-based author R.L. Maizes’ first book, a collection of 11 short stories about outsiders of all stripes, appropriately titled We Love Anderson Cooper.
Maizes mines loss in its many forms — death, divorce, rejection, humiliation, fear, resentment, apathy — to create characters we can’t help but relate to, no matter how different their background. When the story calls for it, Maizes employs magical realism, often softening the harsh realities of life along the way, as is the case with “Tattoo,” where a homely fine art painter finds work, fame and otherwordly power in tattooing realistic nipples on breast cancer survivors.
She also pulls liberally from her own life: an animal-loving former wills and trusts lawyer, twice-married, non-practicing Jew from a very devout Jewish family in New York. While there’s no need to know Maizes prior to reading the collection, understanding her background makes these charming stories all the more enchanting.
In spots, some readers may see where Maizes has played with the themes of other beloved stories to create wholly new works, like in the title story, which takes a note from Philip Roth’s The Conversion of the Jews. In Maizes’ narrative, a young boy courts the popularity that currently evades him by plotting to out himself as gay at his bar mitzvah. As is the case with Roth’s story, Maizes uses humor to explore what it means when a young person questions the faith that was handed down to them by their parents.
Maizes surveys the weight and beauty of Judaism over and over in clever ways. In “The Infidelity of Judah Maccabee,” an actuary frets about his cat cheating on him with his Protestant girlfriend. It’s a story about the fear of rejection, not just from a pet or lover, but also from society as a whole. Barry, the lovably insecure and irritable main character, laments that Christmas “hijacks” the country each December, relegating his own religion to side dishes and “mere afterthoughts in shops, on single shelves or in dim corners.”
Maizes had similar feelings as a child in New York.
“I loved Christmas music and that wasn’t OK,” she says. “My mother was alive during the Holocaust, here in the United States, and so she couldn’t have positive associations [with Christianity]. We would drive down Main Street in Queens and I would say, ‘Look how beautiful the Christmas trees and decorations are,’ and she would be horrified because to her, the association was of terrible persecution.”
“I come from a somewhat dysfunctional family,” she admits. “I don’t think you could be a writer without coming from somewhat of a dysfunctional family.”
Aside from universal emotions that bind humanity together, Maizes also recognizes and plumbs another human devotion: our love of animals. Cats become proxies for our anxieties about alienation, birds symbolize the love we want from our mothers, dogs remind us of how we’ve gone astray.
“I used to volunteer at the Humane Society and I think the most important thing I did there was clean cages. I would clean up the poo,” Maizes says. “Now, I don’t believe in heaven, but if I did believe in heaven, if I were ever going to get into heaven, it would be because I cleaned up poo. I would get up there and St. Peter — I don’t really know much about saints; is he the right one? — he’ll be looking at his list, looking at me, and he’ll say, ‘I’m not sure about you.’ And I’ll say, ‘You see on all those Saturdays where I cleaned up all that poo?’ And he’ll say, ‘All right, whatever, you’re in, I guess.’”
St. Peter may also note that Maizes wrote a compassionate collection of short stories that allowed people to see the humanity in their foibles and shortcomings, that made people feel a little closer to each other, and more forgiving of themselves.
If that’s not a good deed worthy of entry through the Pearly Gates, maybe heaven’s not so great after all.