The Uncollected David Rakoff

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I miss David Rakoff, and his posthumously released The Uncollected David Rakoff just makes me miss him more. I purchased it on the pub. date (late October) — it’s a measure of how distracted I was in November that it’s taken me ’til now to finish the book and report back on it.

Thankfully, this particular collection does not (as sometimes happens with posthumously released books) consist of weaker writing — Rakoff’s talent was too virulent for that. If he picked up a pen and was asked to do some automatic writing about any random subject, my firm belief is that whatever emerged would come out genius. That was just his brain. But I think I can safely say that this book is full of oddments. As every free-lance writer must do of necessity, Rakoff published his writing where and when he could, and that could sometimes lead to strange bedfellows. For example, there are pieces in this collection he’d written for Outside Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, O the Oprah Magazine, the Tablet and (probably my least favorite in the bunch) Grub Street. In addition, there are op-eds for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal (one is about how to properly walk on the streets of New York — it should be required reading for all tourists and distributed at the city limits). Also, several transcribed interviews and other bits from NPR, including lots of painfully honest chat with Fresh Air’s Terri Gross about the cancer that killed him. With death closing in, much of his last writing and commentary was about this, and it powerful.

And best of all, the complete text of his verse novel Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. This one hurts. It fills me with deep, deep sorrow and feelings of loss. When I first heard about it, it sounded like a stunt, and I have small doubt that, with death closing in, he had a deep sense of “now or never” so he made it his last work (one working arm and all). But it reveals a brilliance so original, so promising, and so NEEDED it just fills me with sorrow. It’s like some kind of punishment from God to have him taken.

A tale of love and loss and America across the decades, it is written in rhyming couplets. I found this distracting at first and inappropriately “light” (especially in view of the fact that this book also contains several on-the-nose Dr. Seuss parodies). But one rapidly blasts past that and gets used to it and encounters a dazzling concoction that I can only compare to a mix of Byron, Dorothy Parker, the aforementioned Seuss, and some realist writer of the Chicago school like Dreiser, or a Depression era writer like Steinbeck or Dos Passos. I think of Byron and Parker especially, because like those two poetic geniuses, this musical writer can RHYME. I mean completely original rhymes no one ever thought of. And it is also thrilling to watch him bring the stylistic brilliance he’s always brought to non-fiction, to the creation of characters and story. (I still have not yet seen his film, so this aspect was new to me).

Our time requires heroes — his stature only would have grown and grown and it just galls me to be deprived of his living example. And more – we who prize his acid, acerbic wit, tempered by his humanity, can’t help but daydream about what he would be saying about the state of the world right now. And with customary humility, he would probably tell us that it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

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