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Robert Coover

To know what kind of writer Robert Coover is, one first must understand what kind of person Robert Coover admires.  Controversial Chicago philosophy professor Richard McKeon is, to many, an academic bully in all its dominant glory, a view immortalized in Robert Pirsig's 1974 autobiographical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  In it, Pirsig's Chairman, a character reputedly based on McKeon, browbeats students "with a gleam in his eye" while graduating "only carbon copies of himself."

Within Robert Coover, however, a different Richard McKeon exists.  To Coover, McKeon inspires admiration, so much so that he "respectfully" dedicated his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, to him.

Not surprisingly, controversy has surrounded this Midwestern writer nearly from the start.  Born on Feb. 4, 1932, in Charles City, Iowa, Coover moved with his family to a mining town in rural Illinois, where his father published the local newspaper.  When he was 19, Coover had just come home from college on holiday break when he learned that a mining accident had killed a number of workers.  His father asked him to help cover the story for the paper.  As he rummaged through the debris, Coover was shocked at the number of family members grieving over the dead and mostly disfigured bodies.  Many were unidentifiable.

Later, Coover had a thought.  "I began to wonder what might happen if some guy did get rescued, and came up thinking he'd been saved for some divine mission.  What might that lead to?" 

What it led to was the backbone of his first short story and novel, The Origin of the Brunists (1966), about the lone survivor of a mining accident who goes on to found a religious cult.

Coover, meanwhile, has gone on to write several other experimental novels, including The Universal Baseball Association (1968), The Public Burning (1977), and Spanking the Maid (1981).  His first few books were so divergent from any single style that he had difficulty retaining a single publisher.  Finally, his lucky thirteenth book, Gerald's Party (1986), was picked up by an imprint of Simon and Schuster.  It was the first of his novels to have been published without having first been rejected at least once.

On occasion, Coover has been attacked for some of his more outrageous and controversial novels.  "A recent review of one of my books..." he said, "described my work as some sort of terrorist mission—and yet I be controversial in that way. It's proof I'm alive."

Coover's most recent book, Stepmother, was published iin 2004.  In it, according to one reviewer, Coover, a "father of modern American experimental fiction, returns with...a masterful re-imagining of the fairy-tale tradition.  There is magic, there are princes, and painful castrations.  Also, there is beauty and true love, of a sort."

Coover, who spends his time writing and teaching hypertext at Brown University, once said, "The narrative impulse is always with us; we couldn't imagine ourselves through a day without it."

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