Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: Half-full, Completely Immortal David Rakoff

I am getting more sentimental, more generally angry, quicker to find and cherish sadness, and celebrate goodness in my middle age. It's all good, as the young kids say. Sort of. At least I seem to have a middle age. The late and much-missed David Rakoff, whose sweet eyes and tender face haunts those who loved him, died at 47 after doing more with the life he had than most. Reminds me of that line by another humane, whip-smart, genius wit, Tom Lehrer, who said, lamenting how little he had accomplished (he'd in fact accomplished quite a lot), that when Mozart was his age he'd already been dead two years. That's funny! Rakoff's brilliance falls into that same category of gleeful, generous, self-deprecating if also fool-skewering wise-guy which includes Lehrer, SJ Perelman, W.S. Gilbert, all favorites whose vigorous embrace of language broke the stranglehold on it by so many very stupid people and challenged the rest of us to do better, speak better, read better, maybe even be better.


Not sure if you can make out the cover of this novel-in-verse, the final work written by Mr. Rakoff. The title words (letters) show through tiny round holes, a colorful, inviting and fun art project by design genius Chip Kidd. The gorgeous illustrations are by Seth, the Canadian illustrator and recent Lemony Snicket collaborater, both of whom were it seems brought in by NPR This American Life pal and Rakoff-booster David Sedaris to make the project happen for their dying friend. The drawings are portraits (as the one on the cover) introducing the characters, pretty darn compellingly, of the wicked stepfather, the girl he rapes, the young and precocious artist-boy, the characters of his erotic gay comic book from the grown-up artist man's San Francisco “blue” period you might call it. The illustrations are a tableau to match that of the novel itself, which is a hundred pages of rhyming couplets (anapestic tetrameter I am told) charting the stories of characters tragic and struggling. Twelve stories, inter-connected but of course, and via the structure of sentence, rhyme and story organized into a fun house of correspondence and symmetry.

Like a lot of people, I was introduced to Rakoff through his voice, literary and sonic too. Is there anything better than that, hearing a writer talk about her or his project, read from it or, better yet, perform and crack wise and or promise more on the perfect medium for all of the above, the radio? “This American Life” has been one of the best things about public radio,

and Rakoff (along with Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris, others in the TAL posse) one of the best things about the show. I adored his first book,  and was so sorry to hear about the time I began reading the essays in his final essay collection, Half Empty, that his cancer had returned.  Sorry for him, sorry for myself. The guy did it all, creating a big world out of what is small, a Joseph Cornell miniature diorama that somehow got bigger the further you were from it. His politics and humor and self-deference were almost as attractive as his personable self-regard. He was a gentle show-off, so that it's kinda perfect that he just went for it, writing a novel in rhyme, who cares that it's maybe tantamount to writing an opera in crossword puzzle 

or a short story in Morse Code. He could do anything, was an actor and an artist. He showed off as long as he could, and then some, after living most of his life with the cancer which finally so destroyed his body that all, everything he could still do was compose, talk, exercise his mind.

“For what seemed like hours,” while always subjective/Was now so unknowable,flimsy, selective/In thrall to the twists of his brain's involutions/The cranial mists and synaptic occlusions/He'd had to contend with since he'd has his first stroke/Like trying to sculpt something solid from smoke.
Of course, there's some (lots) of DR in all the characters, as above, in the crippled old man who's married to and taking care of an unhappy woman with a kid, your classic set-up for interiority and estrangement and smoldering resentments circa 1950s, all from the close perspective of, variously, all three characters.  
And the above is exemplary of the showing off, of posing then solving the puzzle, of finding the right word, not to mention being a strong sentence even if weren't rhymed. The novel tells sections of connected lives, and like the rhyming, finds a way to do the same busy-mind puzzle gaming, fun and more fun, forcing the reader to parse the sentence or clause, to keep up with the writer, who controls the whole thing. Showing off. It's all the more touching when seen, to state what I hope is obvious, as the method the artist used to fight against death. Talk about lively writing, living writing. 
Of course, the stories themselves are tragic, as the content might be for somebody facing the end: abuse, stroke, AIDS, poverty. In other words, the whole miserable merry-go-round nowhere that is our weird democracy, from 1928 into the present. So, yes, on top of all the rest, a novel about America as E.L. Doctorow or Sinclair Lewis might have written if they were a gay, Jewish, Canadian who loved New York and had been dying for 25 years, on and off. But funny. And, did I mention, in rhyme? 

“With deepest conviction she found near hilarious/Clifford stopped viewing the trip as vicarious” is maybe an easy one, but how about “She gave up entirely the impulse to say/”It's lovely out, Cliffie, why don't you go play”? And play where, exactly? The yard was an eyesore/(They seen in a newsreel, a famine in Mysore.”Lot's more, but the fun is tripping, falling into them. What word would you rhyme with “paresis”? 
Clifford is the son of the woman who married the rich old screenwriter, moved to Burbank of all places and raised what appears to be a stand-in for the artist, as a young man. There's a family here, disparate, dysfunctional. There's betrayal, and the world's best revenge wedding toast by the fellow tricked by a spiteful bride. There's AIDS, a decade of it, and friends lost: “A permeable world where each friend is a trick/Can feel like it's crumbling when just one gets sick.”
And reminders of the enemies of Rakoff and you and me and humanity: 
The drugmakers, government – all who'd forsaken/The thousands-the murderous silence of Reagan/Or William F. Buckley, the fucker at whose/Suggestion that people with AIDS get tattoos;/(The New Haven lockjaw, the glib erudition/When truly, the man's craven moral perdition/Made Clifford so angry he thought he might vomit/Or fly east, find Buckley's address, and then bomb it.)
Possibly my favorite passage!
And, as in Doctorow's Ragtime, everything is connected, surprisingly but logically and sweetly, with a conclusion and an image that affirms sensuality and beauty and what is genuine, despite or because of all this artifice. Let's hear it for showing off!

And as much as I enjoyed reading this book (on a train trip to Burbank, of all places), I can't help but imagine further delight, melancholy, welcome emotional tumult and intellectual fun in listening to it read, performed, by its author. Unbelievably, just weeks before his slow, painful death, Rakoff not only completed the book, outlined its design with Chip Kidd, worked with Seth on illustrations, but found the energy and wonderfully, perversely life-affirming will and self-love   

to record it. So I'm ordering the CD, too.  Meanwhile, you and I can watch Rakoff with a paralyzed arm but a completely empowered wit here, at “Our Friend David Rakoff” or listen to a couple of chapters

read by DR on a recent “This American Life.” Or you could just read it out loud, as best you can, to someone you love. Or hate, like these two assholes! (That was for you, David.) 

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, David Rakoff, Doubleday, 113 pgs., $26.95 
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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