David Rakoff and his death-defying rhymes

Wit and compassion are two qualities that do not always go together, but they always seem to mingle nicely in the work of David Rakoff. It was bittersweet reading his last book, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. I’d heard him so often on the radio, especially on This American Life, that I could hear Rakoff’s quiet, witty voice in my head as I read. Rakoff died of cancer at the age of 47 in 2012, and I miss him.

This novel in verse is short and sweet, sometimes dark, but leavened with rhymes that are so clever I’d sometimes have to stop and give a whoop of pleasure before returning to the story. At one point, a 1950s secretary named Helen, her affair with her unworthy boss having ended badly, is remembering the scene she made afterwards at a memorable office Christmas party.

...Where feeling misused, she had got pretty plastered,
And named his name, publicly, called him a bastard.
The details are fuzzy, though others have told her
She insulted this one, and cried on that shoulder,
Then lurched ‘round the ballroom, all pitching and weaving
And ended the night in the ladies lounge, heaving.


The story jumps through the whole 20th century through a number of loosely connected characters, and is more a series of character studies and vignettes than a novel. Terrible things happen to some of these characters, but what shines through more than anything else is Rakoff’s pleasure in life and his pleasure in observation.

Towards the end, a chapter about Clifford, a character who is dying of AIDS, ends with these lines:

He thought of those two things in life that don’t vary
(Well, thought only glancingly; more was too scary)
Inevitable, why even bother to test it,
He’d paid all his taxes, so that left… you guessed it.

Here you'll find a list of audio books by Rakoff and by other familiar voices from public radio. Please let me know if I forgot to include a good one.

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