Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

Rakoffian pleasures

Out There

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We met the bestselling humorist David Rakoff many years ago, in a San Francisco five-star hotel room, to interview him when his book Fraud came out. Unlike many authors whom we've interviewed, Rakoff was immediately present, kind, and genuinely interested in our questions and our acquaintance. He was a charming, willing subject, quite unlike the Famous Author who took a call from his agent in the middle of our interview; or the Famous Author who told us to "find your own friends," apparently because we'd got to know some of his peers; or the Famous Author who unexpectedly lured us into bed. He was talented, successful, and nice to people below him on the social ladder. In the words of our tribe, he was a true mensch .

Rakoff died way too soon, in 2012, but before he did, he produced three terrific essay collections; contributed to public radio's This American Life; wrote prolifically; had a life in the theater; and starred in an Oscar-winning short, The New Tenants (2010). His gift for comic writing was acknowledged by the Thurber Prize for American Humor award. A new volume, The Uncollected David Rakoff (Anchor Books), edited by Timothy G. Young and with an introduction by Paul Rudnick, is a must-read for Rakoff enthusiasts. It includes all manner of LOL material published in media that runs the spectrum; a transcription of two Fresh Air interviews with host Terry Gross; scripts of sketches from This American Life; and the complete text of his novel-in-verse Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. All in all, a veritable Rakoff cornucopia.

Rakoff had a pitch-perfect ear for pop culture, as in his fake Abercrombie & Fitch ad copy: "Return to a simpler time. A time of ice cream suppers and neighborly conduct. A time of unbleached cotton and natural fibers. A time where a woman could die of a botched abortion, blacks didn't have the vote, blah, blah, blah." Nothing escapes his eye, as in this description of Dean Martin captured in a kinescope of a 1965 concert: "While singing 'King of the Road,' he gives it a nice little genderfuck by punctuating a riff with a lock of the torso, a cant of the head, his wrist a relaxed teapot handle, and singing, 'Queen of the road.' Dean, just for an instant, makes a surprisingly sympathetic and counterintuitively convincing bottom. I sit there, homo that I am, charmed and unoffended."

Imagining household pets granted the gift of language, Rakoff riffs on overhearing some canine bitching at the dog run: "I'm really pissed off at what you said about me getting fat and how Alice Munro writes the same book over and over. So no, I don't want to get the ball."

Some of the wit on display here reminds Out There of vintage Fran Lebowitz: "Unless your dog files an individual tax return, it is inappropriate bordering on immoral to block human progress by unreeling 30 feet of retractable leash across the pavement." But Rakoff's best stuff emanates from his big gay self. In "The Love That Dare Not Squeak Its Name," he writes of recognizing himself in the mouse hero of E.B. White's children's classic Stuart Little: "Stuart's unquestioned membership in a family despite one glaring material difference from them and his tininess only accentuating his courtly manners and dandy tendencies made me realize that I was somewhat like Stuart, and that Stuart seemed, somewhat like myself, pretty gay."

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