This final work from David Rakoff, who died from cancer in 2012 at the age of 47, is a beautiful novel written as a poem. You might be inclined to think that this would make it pretentious and dull (well, I did) but after reading a review that compared his style to Dorothy Parker’s or Ogden Nash’s, I gave it a go. The novel is told in rhyming couplets that reminded me a bit of Dr. Seuss. It’s fun, funny, sad, tragic. In just over 100 pages, Rakoff covers 100 years in the US in a series of vignettes that deal with rape, incurable illness, homosexuality, love, betrayal — the name of the novel says it all. And by the end you see how seemingly unrelated stories fit together. You could easily read this in one sitting and if you pick it up, you will probably want to do just that.
The novel starts with the birth of a redheaded girl in Chicago at the turn of the century and a mid-wife’s prediction that nothing good will come from it. Rakoff then takes us on a journey to California in the ’50s-’60s where a young man is discovering his art and his sexuality. We also see what happens to his lovely single cousin Helen, who puts on a brave face and demonstrates grace and strength in the face of judgment. Rakoff describes the AIDS crisis, Alzheimers, and marriages falling apart.
I found myself especially drawn to the cousins Cliff and Helen. Helen becomes involved in an office romance that ends badly and comes to see that:
Her presence, she thinks, is what’s
rendered him gladder
But really it’s just that he aimed for,
and had her.
After an embarrassing drunken display at an office party, Helen is ostracized but refuses to hide herself away. Her final exit from another office party several years after the event is just fabulous.
Cliff becomes a comic book artist in San Francisco, drawing “Captain Cocksure and Throbbin.” [Illustrations throughout the novel are by the very talented illustrator Seth.] When a homophobic critic named Blanche Tilley refers to the comic as “filthy, overt, immature,” Cliff responds:
How I wish you would stop up that
You use when you speak, you
After Cliff contracts AIDS and knows he is going to die, he offers this reflection:
It was sadness that gripped him, far
more than fear
That, if facing the truth, he had maybe
When poetic phrases like “eyes look
Become true, all you want is to stay, to
A new, fierce attachment to all of this
Now pierced him, it stabbed like a
Lightning bolt lancing him, sent from
Left him giddy and tearful. It felt like
This is pretty heavy stuff, and yet Rakoff laces his unflinching accounts of these tragedies with humor and spirit. His characters refuse to remain passive in the face of adversity, and I think the fact that Rakoff knew he was dying of cancer when he wrote this demonstrates his own powerful inner drive and his desire to leave having had his say. Rakoff has the last word against death and his message is beautiful and sad.