David Rakoff's "Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish" is a beautiful yet strange object: The title emerges through holes punched in the cover like a child's code key, punctuating a fetching portrait of a red-haired woman done by the Canadian graphic novelist Seth. (The portrait, like all the illustrations in the book, is based on an original sketch by Rakoff; Chip Kidd, the master of modern book design, created the book's look.)
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When you turn to the text, it looks different, too: It's not prose, it's a poem. An epic poem. Although Rakoff is primarily known as an essayist — and, as "This American Life" listeners know, a truly funny one — this is fiction. It grabs you and pins you down. No time wasted.
The story tracks an apparently disconnected procession of individuals, from early 20th century Irish-Americans in Chicago's stockyards, through a mother and son in the "Day of the Locust" Hollywood '30s, to a working woman in "Mad Men"-era New York, to San Francisco's Castro District at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, through the Boomers, the Gen X'ers and on, right up until today.
The connections are quicksilver, yet ironclad, tightly laced with emotions that move from horror to sadness to revenge to laughter. And back. Through it all, we are pulled along by a question, a mystery: How are these people connected? Stories complete each other in the most unexpected ways, and spring open into new stories that keep unfolding.
Rakoff's rhyming gives his words an extra punch. His couplets are delicious. Even taken out of context, you can see how they elevate emotion and bring feelings alive.
Speaking of the passing of time:
And so with no warning and no indication,
The years concertina'd; expansion, deflation...
Speaking about a triad of people who are linked:
Like flies trapped in amber, the three of them stuck
Like so many others dealt cards of rough luck.
Of an observant little girl forced to work in Upton Sinclair's stockyards:
That daily she saw on the thousands of creatures
Their snouts notwithstanding, how human the features.
Mocking — and celebrating — a Noel Coward-esque Hollywood:
Such teddibly juicy, just-so bits of news
With witty, urbane, comme il faut apercus.
And finally, the opening of a long-sealed letter:
He eased his small finger just under the flap.
The old glue gave way with a crisp but weak snap.
Rakoff died just a few weeks after he turned in the manuscript. He knew as he wrote the book that his cancer was terminal. You might think this impending end somehow tempered Rakoff's ironic, irreverent take on things. But if anything, his observational powers and sense of humor are in full evidence.
Instead of commenting on life as he did in his essays, he creates life here. His verse retains his wry wit, while staring straight into Big Questions. Its ending is beautiful and unexpected — one that wraps it up as it spins it forward, concluding with more questions than answers. Questions you ask yourself. Over and over again.
Ken Krimstein, author of "Kvetch as Kvetch Can," cartoons for The New Yorker and has written for McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Forbes and The New York Observer.
"Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish"
By David Rakoff, Doubleday, 115 pages, $26.95