David Rakoff's last book is clever, moving novel in verse
LOVE, DISHONOR, MARRY, DIE, CHERISH, PERISH, by David Rakoff. Doubleday, 113 pp., $26.95.
The death from cancer of 47-year-old David Rakoff -- bestselling essayist and contributor to public radio's "This American Life" -- broke fans' hearts last summer. Fortunately, he left behind an unusual last book billed as a "novel in verse" and designed by Chip Kidd with illustrations by the cartoonist Seth.
But first -- not to quibble -- are we sure this is a novel and not an epic poem? One-hundred-plus pages of anapestic tetrameter seems like the latter to me, as terrifying as that designation may be from a marketer's perspective.
Epic it certainly is -- a series of vignettes taking us through more than a century of American life, moving through Chicago, Seattle, Burbank, Manhattan, San Francisco and points unnamed. The author's cleverly rhymed couplets bring to mind both Ogden Nash and Cole Porter, as we see in this excerpt set in the 1980s:
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 . . . adored it.
Or this, from the time of AIDS in San Francisco:
And what could one say about poor lovely Marty?
Whose fever spiked high at his own dinner party
Between the clear soup and the rabbit terrine
By eleven that night he was in quarantine.
As the half-dozen main characters randomly cross paths, the story is carried forward by their interactions, sometimes gestures of kindness and other times its opposite. Twelve-year-old Margaret, brutalized by her stepfather and rejected by her mother, rides the rails westward to start a new life. On the train, she briefly meets a hobo who wraps her in his coat and sings her to sleep in Yiddish. Clifford, introduced in the next section, is that erstwhile hobo's son. Young Cliffie takes a photograph of his cousin Helen that becomes a touchstone as it passes from one character to the next. Helen goes on to suffer in the sexist office culture of 1950s Manhattan; later Clifford finds himself artistically and sexually in gay San Francisco.
Then comes the fairly awful Susan, she of the Christian Lacroix, who will change her name to Sloan and then Shulamit and treat two different men badly before she's through. Then it's AIDS, and Alzheimer's and Zion -- honestly, I had to read the book twice to follow all the threads. But because it was so amusingly made, that was no trouble at all.
Out loud it is even better: Try it and see.