I wish I could buy everyone David Rakoff‘s latest (and sadly last) book: Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel. Those of you familiar with David Rakoff’s writing know that for the most of his career, he has been a memoirist similar to David Sedaris. His latest (and last) book is a departure, a novel in rhyming couplets written while he was dying of cancer. I bought the audiobook of it, read by the author (edited by Ira Glass) and completed 13 days before his death, I wanted to hear it how he wanted it to be heard. I walked all over Manhattan on Christmas Day in 2013, alone, listening to his words in his voice. I listened to it again today while walking Scraps on Lake Washington Boulevard. It is achingly beautiful. I am not the only one that thinks so, I have collected exerts of his book reviews here. They read more like love letters than reviews and rightly so.
Rakoff’s accessible and unpretentious style is at times reminiscent of the quicksilver Algonquin dazzle of Dorothy Parker or Ogden Nash, along with the greater emotional reach of Frank O’Hara. The verse also formalizes the novel’s events, lending them a Homeric aspect — if only Homer had been chattier and had described a hippie-ish fellow as “Clad in the uniform he’d worn since Ohio: / Birkenstocks, drawstring pants (think Putumayo).”
The book is a heartfelt, charmingly profound American epic. At a breezy 113 pages, it charts pretty much the entire 20th century, through a series of interlocking lives. Early on, we meet Margaret, a redheaded, brutally poor preteen who leaves school to work in a Chicago slaughterhouse. When the male employees jeer at her, she retreats, in her thoughts, “To a place close yet distant, both here and not here; / Present, but untouched by doubt or by fear.”
Margaret has a vicious stepfather: “Frank said that one time, in Wichita, Kansas, / He’d killed a man who had addressed him as Francis.” What follows is vivid and ugly, but the scope of the storytelling remains fresh and optimistic.
The book leaps to Burbank, California, where a family barely gets by in the wake of the Depression: “The yard a brown painting of motionless calm / The packed, ochre dirt and the lone, scraggly palm.” There we meet Clifford, a boy who lives to draw: “Above all, the thing that had captured his heart, / And opened his world: reproductions of art.”
Clifford is also inspired by radio broadcasts of a show called “Rex Bond, Inveterate Explorer,” and he develops a crush, imagining “He’d find Rex bound up in some old, empty warehouse / And carry him home (in the dream it was their house.)” His sexual awakening occurs as he faints, after he’s asked to sketch a nude male model; he experiences “A vaguely elating but frightening bubble, / He felt buoyant and free and yet somehow in trouble.”
Clifford develops a touching and tumultuous relationship with his shy, awkward cousin, Helen, and the narrative shoots forward another decade or two, as the adult Helen works as a secretary in Manhattan. She suffers the indignities of an affair and office gossip, until, at a Christmas party, “Helen just stands there, observing it all, / Sipping her gimlet against the far wall.”
Rakoff is adept at portraying the challenges and loneliness of his female characters, along with the swagger and arrogance of their husbands and bosses. We revisit Clifford, now grown and living in a beloved San Francisco, where he draws underground comics. When his work is attacked by conservatives for its gay subject matter, Clifford responds: “I know it won’t sway you the smallest scintilla / To point out the sex is quite firmly vanilla.”
Time hurtles forward, to the 1970s and ’80s, where a love triangle blossoms, centering on Susan, a spoiled, Lacroix-clad denizen of the art world, who attends openings where “the waiters were done up like Jean Genet felons.” Susan is pursued by the best friends Josh and Nathan, and a wedding occurs at Posner’s, a Long Island catering hall with “Venetian palazzo floors pounded by horas / Cut-velvet drapes framing chopped-liver Torahs.”
Susan had never donned quite so bourgeois
A garment as Thursday night’s Christian Lacroix.
In college—just five years gone—she’d have abhorred it
But now, being honest, she fucking adored it.
As lives are ruined, or at least deformed, through deceit and ambition, other calamities erupt, including the scourge of AIDS. As some characters sicken, others remain aloft, astride their high-powered fortunes, in homes with “Framed scenes of hunts on a hunter-green wall / A pillow: ‘Nouveau riche beats no riche at all.’ ”
Rakoff artfully depicts shifting social impulses, as Susan changes her name to Sloan and then Shulamit. As the century draws to a close, characters practice all the verbs in the book’s title. Ultimately, some wonderfully surprising connections between the most disparate people are revealed. The book ends with an especially lovely revelation that’s both ruefully comic and crushingly sad.
This video clip is advertising the release of the book. It feels more like a tribute, with a reading of one of it’s passages by Ira Glass, Red Green, Dave Hill, Jackie Hoffman, Jodi Lennon, Linden MacIntyre, Bruce McCall, Stuart McLean, Rick Mercer, Jon Scieszka, George Stroumboulopoulos and Calvin Trillin: