You may not be familiar with his wicked, smart, powerful, funny writing, but I urge you to read at least one of his pieces to get what I am celebrating today. David Rakoff (1964 – 2012) was one of the most original voices of my era.
He was anything but prolific, he produced just three very short, pithy books: Fraud (2001), Don’t Get Too Comfortable (2005), and Half Empty (2010) in the span of a decade, and one terrifyingly brilliant posthumously published novel, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (2013) written entirely in verse. It is a kind of homage to Dorothy Parker, with a big dash of Frank O’Hara.
I always sought out his magazine pieces. Rakoff wrote regularly for Conde Nast Traveler, GQ, and New York Times Magazine. His essays also appeared in Details, Harper’s Bazaar, New York, and Vogue. Online he contributed short stuff on Salon, Seed, Slate, and Spin, and he was a regular on NPR.
Rakoff’s essays were always the funniest thing in any issue of my favorite magazines, suffused with brazen honesty and world-weary wisdom.
Here’s an excerpt from an essay he wrote about the first time he saw Times Square when he first moved to New York City to study at Columbia. It is the perfect blend of smart writing and biting humor:
“The colossus towering over this particular moment shuddering between decadence and recovery was not Bartholdi’s Lady Liberty but the first of Calvin Klein‘s bronzed gods, high above Times Square. Leaning back, eyes closed, in his blinding white underpants against a sinuous form in similarly white Aegean plaster, his gargantuan, sleeping, groinful beauty was simultaneously Olympian and intimate, awesome and comforting. Here was the city in briefs: uncaring, cruelly beautiful, and out of reach.”
In 2011, Rakoff was awarded the James Thurber Prize for American Humor. Like all great wits, he wrote with determination to dazzle with style. Here is Rakoff describing an unhappy couple he observed on New Year’s Day:
“He began that unmistakable wet-mouthed, lip-smacking, compulsive swallowing that indicates the impending need to vomit. His upper lip shone with perspiration, and his eyes were closed. The woman had nowhere to go, indeed, there was nothing else she would be able to do until the train reached the station, and that might not be in sufficient time. If the first thing you do on the first day augurs the spirit and tone of your new year, this woman was in for a very bad 1987.”
1987 was also a really bad year for Rakoff. At just 22 years old, he was hit with a diagnosis of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, but he managed to beat the cancer with 18 months of barbarous treatment. He wrote about it with brute realism and biting humor. But, in 2010, he was diagnosed with another malignant tumor, and in one of life’s cruelest ironies, Rakoff was forced to begin chemotherapy once more. Yet, he kept on writing:
“I try to comfort myself with the first-person accounts I’ve heard of those who die on operating tables and come back: the light, the warmth, and the surge of love from one’s dead ancestors urging you forward. But even that doesn’t help as I wonder what on earth the Old World, necromancing Litvak primitives from whom I am descended would make of me? You’re 44-years-old and not married? You’re a what? We had one in the shtetl and he was chased from the town with brickbats. How much treyf do you eat? What kind of writing? And from this you make a living?”
Still, it was “the show must go on” for Rakoff. He continued to write until the end. His writing that last year had a funny yet realistic dignity that inspired me to take a curious defense against the cruel setbacks in life when it came my turn to be diagnosed with the same cancer in 2014.