Polar Bear in Paradise

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The protagonist of T Cooper’s short novel is an ambitious, self-destructive, porn-loving, totally sympathetic… bear.

The Beaufort Diaries is a handsome book. It’s ninety pages long and twenty-five of those pages are illustrations, black-and-white, line-sketched characters over photos. You can read it over the course of a bus journey. It’s either a novella or a graphic novel or a picture book, and it tells a familiar story of someone seeking fame: going up and coming down. That someone just so happens to be a polar bear.

Beaufort is sent away from home, hitchhikes to Hollywood, finds success in the movie business, and encounters the things that follow success. It’s easy to like the eponymous, diary-keeping narrator of The Beaufort Diaries when he tells Hollywood types things like, “I’m just not sure I want to be typecast as a polar bear for the rest of time.”

Cooper writes a lot of life into the Hollywood scenes—Beaufort’s interest in Kabbalah and his Nyquil abuse (which starts him off on a series of abuses that eventually put him in rehab) being two highlights—as well as a true sense of movement and of a young life growing:

You could say I grew up quick, thanks to a steady diet of surplus salmon steaks, flat, watery beer by the keg, and the same ten-year-old, dog-eared copies of Juggs magazine that got passed round the bunks. Every night I had no choice but to listen as the other guys told nonstop, torrid tales about women, purportedly trying to teach me all I’d ever need to know once I “got up on the horse” myself. (If I never hear another fishy-fingers joke again, it’ll be too soon.)

Cooper’s language is simple, almost camouflaged, colloquial without seeming to try too hard. This brings Beaufort—rather than the action—to the center of our sympathetic attention, which makes his spectacular self-destruction all the more endearing. After his first film success, he tries screenwriting:

So it was completely against my agents’, colleagues’, and friends’ advice, but when the final call came and I was deep into a second draft of my script, I passed on The Golden Compass 2: The Return of Whimsy. There would always be another offer.

Though the reader knows Beaufort is doomed, Cooper never patronizes his hero, never takes the easy way out and writes him as a fool. Still, The Beaufort Diaries doesn’t land quite the way it should. The protagonist-as-bear is well-handled, but Beaufort’s bearness isn’t integral to how the book works. The bear-in-Hollywood experience is the same as the human-in-Hollywood experience:

I collected on my final life-line with Leo and called him from a payphone down on Sunset. I’m sure he only answered because he didn’t recognize the number. Leo sounded immediately exasperated, but he claimed he was happy to hear from me, and that he’d always love and care about me, but that he didn’t want to enable my downward spiral any longer. That said, he offered to wire a couple grand to help me get out to New York and secure a place to stay. But it would be the last time. I couldn’t have been more grateful.

We are involved, we share Beaufort’s abandonment—but this could be a human talking. Cooper gets some good jokes out of the premise: Beaufort’s stalker with a stuffed toy fetish, the entourage of no-good seals who spend all day lounging by the pool. But the opportunities created by the satire could have yielded more. Beaufort isn’t just any Hollywood outsider, he’s also a polar bear—doubly outside—but in answer to the question, What can being a polar bear in Hollywood tell us that being a human in Hollywood can’t?, Cooper doesn’t say.

But perhaps that’s not the point. Perhaps a book can have a polar bear narrator and have that be enough. There is a great deal of humor and tenderness here, a considerable achievement, considering the book’s length. Trying to fit a story of this scale into fewer than one hundred pages is audacious and ambitious; although it’s short, The Beaufort Diaries is a polished and beguiling work, written with tact, benevolence and great empathy. It may not provide a fresh view of Hollywood, fame, and the fall, but as satire—and satire with, fittingly, humanity—it’s a success.

Michael E. Halmshaw is the winner of the inaugural Jeffrey Wainwright Manchester Young Writer of the Year award. He lives and writes in Brooklyn. More from this author →