David Rakoff belonged to the stable of contributors on This American Life since the show’s inception, and Ira Glass’ long-running public radio program delivered one of its most heartfelt and personal episodes in the wake of Rakoff’s death from cancer last summer. In the final months of his life, Rakoff hurried to finish his first novel, and even recorded the audiobook, which was hauntingly previewed in that TAL episode and in the book trailer. That novel, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, isn’t the crowning achievement of Rakoff’s tragically short career. If anything, from the light page count and narrative gaps between sections, there is little doubt that Rakoff had intended for there to be more to the story, then life intervened. But it serves as a fitting capstone to a man rushing to wring a lightly linked series of stories together in a unique poetic structure.
The book sweeps across many different locations over the course of the 20th century—from Chicago slaughterhouses in the 1920s to pre-film-studio Burbank, when southern California was still filled with orange groves, to San Francisco just as it was becoming a haven of gay culture. Only one character recurs throughout the book as the focus of multiple passages. Clifford enters the novel as a young man taking art classes and befriending his cousin Helen by drawing her portrait. When the book returns to Clifford, he’s a gay artist in San Francisco drawing dirty comics inspired by Batman and Robin (think “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” but more graphic). And further down the road, Clifford watches as his friends are “dropping like flies” at the outset of the AIDS epidemic.
That’s the mixture Rakoff aims for: delightful and brief moments of happiness in equal balance with personal tragedy, cherry picked from many different lives, with a silver lining of wryly black humor. Rakoff deliberately uses the Seussian meter to contrast with dark subject matter. The book opens with a haunting chapter of a girl who is abused by her menacing, perpetually drunk stepfather, then flees across the country by hopping a freight train, never seen or heard from again. Rakoff leaves a trail of crumbs from that scene through the rest, loosely connecting everyone while never hinting at the significance.
The central scene is also the book’s most well-known to anyone familiar with Rakoff’s work: a toast given by a broken man at the wedding of his best friend and ex-girlfriend. It was previously performed on This American Life as “The Tale Of The Scorpion And The Tortoise.” It contains everything wonderful about Rakoff’s writing: the sense of getting so invested in the story that all seems lost, at which time the point emerges from almost nowhere, followed almost immediately by a joke so obvious it shouldn’t be so funny. And Rakoff never lets himself be limited by the meter, poking fun at the need to keep poetic rhythm within the narrative. (“Your grandfather, Clifford, could sure make a mess / Of a perfectly good situa…I digress.”)
Rakoff’s elliptical connection from the early sections of the novel to the very end is cute, and structurally pleasing, emphasizing the simple thematic underpinning that coincidental ties can bind unlikely groups of people throughout time. But Love, Dishonor… can’t shake the phantom-limb sensation. It’s just not the book it would have been had Rakoff been afforded the amount of time he needed.
As a final testament to Rakoff’s skill of bringing a light and humorous attitude to unflinchingly dark subject matter, it makes near-perfect sense. And the illustrations by Seth—the cartoonist behind Palookaville and the artwork for Lemony Snicket’s Who Could That Be At This Hour?—render the characters in the same tone as the meter: a little silly, just unrealistic enough to come across as fractured fairy tale inhabitants instead of realistic people. Rakoff finds a scene to hit every word of the title, encompassing several of the traditional emotional actions in the life of a person. But his real gift is the light-touch medicinal humor threaded into the poetic patchwork, the cheerfulness Rakoff exhibited through to the end.