July 15 (Bloomberg) -- When he died last August, David Rakoff, the wicked comic essayist and fixture on public radio’s “This American Life,” left behind a novel-in-stories with a long title -- “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish” -- and a peculiar form: rhymed couplets.
The verse is frankly doggerel, which is part of what makes it so piercing: It sneaks up on you. To call tales this delicately laced together a novel may be stretching it, but the theme of time binds them so firmly that the word seems just. The structure is loose, but it isn’t random.
The setting moves from slaughterhouse to penthouse, and the rotating cast, each of its members fully alive, includes a drunken brute, a raped child, a disconsolate caretaker, her slutty son, a discarded mistress, a stonehearted social climber, the good man she betrays and the good man she marries: the full range of social class and character.
Rakoff was doubtless inspired by his friend Maggie Robbins’s scintillating 2005 novel in doggerel, “Suzy Zeus Gets Organized,” and probably a little bit as well by Dr. Seuss.
Robbins is a more sophisticated versifier and a wittier rhymer. Rakoff’s rhythms galumph -- sometimes they trip and go splat -- leading you to wonder whether he was writing fast because he knew his time was short. He succumbed to cancer at the unacceptable age of 47.
And so he must have felt a pang of kinship when he gave one of his characters, a gay man named Clifford, an early case of AIDS. Rakoff was gay, too, and he has a wonderful time sending Clifford, a Southern California native, into the orgy of San Francisco before the epidemic:
And crowning it all was the chief among joys: The liquid, ubiquitous river of boys. [Expletive], kissable, dateable, rentable, Faeries and rough trade, or highly presentable. Stupid as livestock or literate in Firbank, All of it galaxies distant from Burbank.
You can feel Rakoff tingle at his own venom when Clifford lets a homophobic homemaker have it:
How I wish you would stop up that bile-spewing spigot You use when you speak, you rebarbative bigot. You’re through and through Dixie and I, San Francisco. Despite a shared fondness we both have for Crisco.
“Love, Dishonor” contains 11 stories in all, moving from about a century ago almost all the way to now. The earlier ones have more amplitude; as the book goes on the tales grow shorter and more elliptical, leading you to wonder, again, whether Rakoff sped up because he was running out of time.
The main argument against this hypothesis is that the late tales are no less powerful than the early ones. Rakoff’s humor was always shot through with the same melancholy that hooded his basset-hound eyes, but in this book the passage of time has a special sadness.
The cleverly Proustian plot uses a photograph of a half-nude girl as its madeleine -- a madeleine that, as it gets passed from hand to hand over the decades, has less and less meaning for the characters but more and more for the reader.
We’re all dust, Rakoff seems to be saying, and we won’t be remembered, although -- never a full pessimist -- maybe some of our art will.
Even at six vivid verbs, the title doesn’t do justice to the breadth of this short, acrid, elusive, entrancing book. It’s motored by acts of viciousness and of startling kindness. But all of them, good or bad, fade in the end; the only evidence that remains is that happy-sad photograph.
Doggerel is silly on its face. Behind its face, this novel is anything but.
“Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish” is published by Doubleday (113 pages, $26.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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