TORONTO — You wouldn’t know it from reading his incisive and humorous award-winning essays, but writing was always very hard for David Rakoff. Nothing compared, however, to the difficulties he faced and surmounted in completing his final work, a posthumously published novel, just weeks before he died of cancer at the age of 47 last August.
“Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish,” Rakoff’s, first and only novel, has been released by Doubleday today. Rakoff managed to write the book as he progressively weakened. He did it while in extreme pain and with one arm paralyzed. He recorded the book’s audio version literally days before he passed away.
“He recorded the thing with his last breath,” his father, Dr. Vivian Rakoff, a noted psychiatrist, said in an interview he and his wife Dr. Gina Shochat-Rakoff, a physician, gave The Times of Israel at their Toronto home.
“He was coughing his lungs out, but he was determined to get it done,” his mother said. She had gone to New York to be with her son and went with him to the four two-hour recording sessions at the Manhattan studios of “This American Life,” Ira Glass’ National Public Radio program on which Rakoff had appeared 25 times. “He said, ‘I’m so glad I did that,’ when he finished it.”
“Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish” stands out for a reason other than its posthumous publication. It is written in rhyming iambic pentameter, a fact that comes as a surprise to most people, but not to his parents.
“People don’t know this, but back when he was a student at Bialik Hebrew Day School, he wrote a rhyming Purim schpiel based on [Yiddish poet and playwright] Itzik Manger’s ‘Songs of the Megillah,’” Rakoff’s mother said. “He also wrote an assignment on Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in rhyming verse when he was in high school,” his father added. “It was supposed to be prose, but he got a good mark anyway.”
Bill Thomas, Rakoff’s editor at Doubleday, recalled that Rakoff started thinking of writing a novel in verse a decade ago. Inspired by Don Marquis’ “Archy and Mehitabel” columns, a series of social commentaries featuring a free verse poet cockroach and a cat with regal pretentions, which ran in various New York newspapers in the 1910s and 1920s, Rakoff worked on the project off and on.
“He read a section of what is now the Wedding Toast chapter of the novel on ‘This American Life’… and the overwhelmingly positive response encouraged him to bring the book to fruition,” Thomas said. “He worked on it in earnest from the Fall of 2010, and completed it five weeks before his death. David was an intensely creative person and the light verse form was immensely appealing to him. On that level his motivation was very simple: He loved the form and wanted to see if he could master it. Which he did, emphatically.”
The book’s content is as striking as its form. Although labeled a novel, “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish” is more accurately a series of loosely interrelated stories spanning America’s 20th century. The lives of the characters in the stories (many of whom are either explicitly or implicitly Jewish) are linked by acts of generosity and cruelty. Though incredibly funny at times, the book sends a serious message about the necessity for kindness in a world where so many are motivated by personal gain.
“Underneath his indelible wit and perfect turns of phrase lay a sadness that people can be so cruel and selfish, and a belief that the only weapons against the world’s brutality were kindness and beauty,” Thomas explained. “‘Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish’ is a portrait of an America whose freedoms can be intoxicating, or devastating. It is the clearest expression of David’s insistence on beauty and the necessity of kindness in a selfish world.”
Glass, who was Rakoff’s close friend, emphasized in an interview with CBC Radio that although this book is obviously different from Rakoff’s three essay collections (“Fraud,” “Don’t Get Too Comfortable,” and the Thurber Prize-winning “Half Empty”), it is in keeping with them thematically. “David was always measuring people up,” Glass reflected. “He was deeply judgmental, but also deeply empathetic.”
Although the book is uniformly successful, there are two sections that stand out in particular, including the Wedding Toast chapter mentioned by Thomas. It consists primarily of Rakoff’s brilliant take on the folkloric parable of the Scorpion and the Turtle, but it also contains a passage (a toast to the newlywed couple given by the bride’s sister Mindy) in which Rakoff deliberately sends up the idea of rhyme, the very form he committed to for this novel.
(Those with who knew Rakoff as a child will recognize that he used the name of his Yiddish teacher from Bialik, Mrs. Zolteck, in the toast, begging the question as to whether he was mocking her, too. His father say that to the contrary, Rakoff very much liked her and learning Yiddish — something Rakoff himself once told this reporter.)
The other is a section in which a gay San Francisco artist named Cliff is about to die of AIDS, which one cannot read without thinking about how Rakoff wrote it when he must have intuited that his own time on earth was also coming to an end. He wrote of Cliff, but presumably also himself:
It was sadness that gripped him, far more than the fear
That, if facing the truth he had maybe a year.
When poetic phrases like “eyes, look your last”
Become true, all you want is to stay, to hold fast.
A new, fierce attachment to all of his world
Now pierced him, it stabbed like a diety-hurled
Lightning bolt lancing him, sent from above,
Left him giddy and tearful. It felt like young love.
He’d thought of himself as uniquely proficient
At seeing, but now that sense felt insufficient.
He wanted to grab, to posses, to devour
To eat with his eyes, how he needed that power.
While Rakoff delivered his manuscript to Thomas before he died, he did not live to help make final decisions about the book’s design.
“We asked Chip Kidd, the great book designer and a good friend of David’s, if he would create the overall design, and Chip engaged the celebrated illustrator Seth to do the illustrations. David saw and loved Chip’s design concept, and also reviewed Seth’s portfolio and was very pleased,” Thomas said.
“We came to decisions on as many aspects of the publication as we could in the time he had left. As other considerations arose, I kept David’s wishes and the spirit in which he wanted the book to be presented uppermost in my mind.”
Rakoff’s parents recall that their son was very modest. When he told them he had no imagination, he was clearly being self-deprecating. “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish” proves that he had imagination to spare.
“It’s the best thing he ever wrote, and he knew it,” said Thomas.
Glass thinks his friend would have written more novels. “My guess is that he would have kept going along these lines.”
Rakoff woke up early last August 9 and told his mother, “Today is the day.” He died at home in his New York apartment at 11:40 that night, surrounded by his family.
This new book is dedicated to his family, but there is no chance his handwritten signature will appear on the flyleaf of his parents’ copy. “It’s painful,” his mother said as she wiped away tears.
“Davey had never signed any of his [first three] books for us, so not long before he died we asked him to do it,” his father said.
“Love Everlasting,” is what he wrote to his parents — and what they in turn chose to put on his gravestone.