• U.S.

These American Lives

4 minute read
Jesse Dorris

Before his death from cancer in 2012 at the age of 47, David Rakoff was many things: a best-selling essayist, a journalist, a screenwriter of an Oscar-winning short film, a theater director and a contributor to radio’s This American Life. He was gay, Jewish, Canadian and American, attaining dual citizenship in 2003. He had a Wildean appreciation for paradox and a talent for epigrams too. (“There is nothing so cleansing or reassuring,” he once wrote, “as a vicarious sadness.”)

It’s proper, then, that his charming new novel, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, is also many things: a posthumous debut, an illustrated book with elegant work by award-winning cartoonist Seth and peerless designer Chip Kidd, a history of 20th century America that places outsiders center stage. Oh, and it rhymes.

Beginning with a birth, Love charts the intertwined fates of nearly a dozen characters. There’s Margaret, born to a factory worker, who learns through harassment by nuns and would-be abattoir Romeos to dislocate herself:

… Namely to fly in her thoughts

to a place close yet distant, both here and

not here;

present, but untouched by doubt or by fear.

For instance, she mused on the linguistic feat

that gave creatures names quite apart from

their meat.

Much of Love is concerned with reinvention. Characters change their names, locations, lives. Rakoff sometimes depicts these moves as epic acts: Margaret, for example, rides the rails and, in the grand American tradition, goes west. The precocious young illustrator Clifford gains hero status as he discovers his homosexuality (and talent) during a life-drawing class, in “a process, unstoppable, once it began/ like trying to put shaving cream back in a can.”

Clifford finds a muse, Helen, and photographs her with oranges. It’s a talismanic image that returns throughout the book as Clifford chases his art and, not unrelatedly, his desire for men to the wonderland of San Francisco in the 1960s and ’70s. The rest is tragedy on a Greek scale, told with an insouciant and caustic wit. Margaret and Clifford don’t live to see the end of the novel, but both are here and not here–Margaret because of the family she created, Clifford for his art.

Helen heads east and self-actualizes, like any good New Yorker, by cussing someone out. (It’s a thrilling moment.) Clifford, meanwhile, has his moments of strident excoriation, which one really needs to hear read by Rakoff to fully appreciate. More difficult to read are the scenes of Clifford’s death, written so close to Rakoff’s own, in which this most arch of artists finds himself desperate to connect, to not let go of life:

A new, fierce attachment to all of this world now pierced him. It stabbed like a deity-hurled

lightning bolt, lancing him, sent from above, left him giddy and tearful. It felt like young love.

True, as so often with young love, and perhaps even life itself, Love starts to sour as it goes on. Rakoff approaches smugness in his vision of scheming Susan, who smiles with a “slight rodentine tightness” as she searches for sexual attention and better real estate. Her jilted lover, Nathan, fares better: he offers an extended retelling of a Sanskrit fable in place of a wedding toast, capped with what might serve as the point of all Rakoff’s stanzas: “So we make ourselves open, while knowing full well/ It’s essentially saying, ‘Please, come pierce my shell.’ “

Love argues that this kind of openness is the American condition, for better and worse. Rakoff, like his antecedent Walt Whitman, contained multitudes, and Love is at its best when honoring those who embrace their own contradictions.

In this way, it’s a fitting finale to a body of work that explored fraudulence, privilege and melancholy with astonishing empathy. Early in the novel, Clifford describes his favorite aunt as “kindness encased in a varnish of clever.” Could a better epitaph for Rakoff be found? Never.

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