I often pause and wonder what Thurber Prize-winning writer David Rakoff would have to say about major events such as the election of US President Donald Trump, Brexit, Benjamin Netanyahu’s interminable Israeli premiership, and the current COVID-19 crisis.
Unfortunately, none of us will ever know, because Rakoff died prematurely of cancer at the age of 47 in August 2012. Ironically, Rakoff was known to say that he looked forward to age 47, expecting it to be the beginning of the best stage in life.
I knew Rakoff when we were children attending the same Jewish day school in Toronto. He was two grades ahead of me and part of the group of cool kids who inexplicably allowed me to occasionally hang out with them.
There were two main differences between Rakoff and me: Height and how much we bought into our Israel-focused studies. First, I was a head taller than the diminutive Rakoff, who didn’t start his growth spurt until college. Second, I drank the Zionist Kool-Aid and ended up living in the Jewish state, while Rakoff (more a fan of Yiddish and the Diaspora) made New York his Jerusalem and longtime home.
Rakoff and I lost touch for many years until I ended up interviewing him several times for articles I wrote, including one marking his prestigious Thurber Prize for American Humor in 2011 for his third published collection of essays, “Half Empty.”
Rakoff was more than merely witty. He was an exceptional writer and a keen observer of human nature, whose intelligently crafted sentences could be in turn snarky, hilarious or self-deprecating — but all deeply true.
The unifying theme of “Half Empty”is Rakoff’s predilection for defensive pessimism: prepare for the worst so that you will be pleased if things turn out even passably decent. My favorite essay in this book is “Dark Meat.” It’s about Rakoff’s love for the other white meat. “I never feel more Jewish than in that moment just before I am about to eat pork,” he writes, careful to warn kashrut observers that he will offend.
In the essay, Rakoff takes us back and forth through the annals of Jewish history and on a book tour to Berlin to explain (nay, justify) his penchant for bacon. By the essay’s last sentence — “Just behind the bacon’s bracing jolt of salt and its comforting embrace of fat of smoke, even more than its shattering crispness and tenacious, leathery pull, I taste the World,” — we understand that Rakoff is talking about something far more profound than a common breakfast meat.
The final essay in the collection is “Another Shoe,” and its most un-funny subject is the recurrence of Rakoff’s cancer. He had recovered from a bout of Hodgkin’s disease (a type of lymphoma) in his early 20s, only to develop an osteosarcoma behind his left clavicle some 20 years later, likely due to the effects of the radiation treatment he underwent for his initial illness.
Rakoff underwent several surgeries for the new cancer, including a final one that severed major nerves, leaving his left arm a dangling, useless appendage. “I am back to trying to be unsentimental about a nondominant limb, doing the trade-off in my mind: an arm for continued existence,” he writes.
Before the surgery, Rakoff told me by phone me he faced the possible amputation of his arm, and of his incredible, constant pain. He was on heavy duty pain killers and asked me to please not write about how it hurt almost too much for him to even speak.
In Rakoff’s final public appearance — for a “This American Life” event — he breaks into a heart-stopping dance at the end. With his immobile left hand tucked into his pocket, he maintains his balance and glides gracefully across the stage doing balletic gestures he learned as a young man.
“As for the fear that has marked a lot of this, it is bereft of larger lessons. Other than the reflexive survival instincts it triggers, avoiding being something else’s dinner, it seems completely useless… I mean that fear lays waste to one’s best reserves. It foments rot in my stores of grain, eats away at my timbers. If I dwell on the possibility that I might be dead by forty-seven, I can’t really find a useful therefore in that…” Rakoff writes.
‘Fraud’ and ‘Don’t Get Too Comfortable’
Long before Rakoff’s fatal illness, he published two national bestselling collections, “Fraud” and “Don’t Get Too Comfortable” with delightful essays on a wide variety of subjects and experiences, including one of my favorites (in “Fraud”) about Rakoff’s playing Freud in a Barney’s Christmas window display. “I am the Ghost of Christmas Subconscious,” the piece begins.
Another favorite from “Fraud” is “Arise, Ye Wretched of the Earth,” about how a summer stint stacking chickens in crates on an Israeli kibbutz (and being bullied by a macho kibbutznik) clinched it for him that he was neither destined to make the desert bloom, nor (sexually) like women.
“Now I live in the city that might best be described as the un-kibbutz. Where nobody would dream of touching a live chicken. Where whatever spirit of collectivist altruism people might have had dried up long ago, and where the world Karl and Marx generally bring up associations of Lagerfeld and Groucho,” Rakoff writes.
‘Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish’
Shortly after Rakoff’s death, I wrote about the posthumous publication of his first novel, “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish.” More a collection of interrelated stories, all written in verse, it was a huge achievement.
That his final work was as good or even better than his three former books (plus his many articles and broadcasts), is not surprising. Rakoff himself, however, was modest when I asked him whether he kept reaching greater and greater heights. He insisted he couldn’t really say, and that it was best to let others judge.
“It all comes from the same place. One’s hope, I suppose, is that one’s writing gets stronger and better as time goes on,” he said.
Although I will never know what Rakoff would have thought about today’s politically-torn, plague-wracked world, I am left with two pieces of his advice that I often think about.
“Keep reminding yourself you’re a grown-up,” Rakoff, wrote me in an email when I asked him for tips on handling going back to our childhood school to report a challenging story. In other words, you can handle it. Just get the job done.
And finally, when I sit staring blank minded at my computer screen, I tell myself that even for the super-talented Rakoff, writing was often painfully difficult.
“Writing is like pulling teeth. From my dick,” he wrote.