Laugh Till You Die: Dave Rakoff
Author: Victoria Brownworth
August 14, 2012
It’s rare that you hear someone died and you start laughing, but here’s the context. I was listening to Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air” on NPR Friday which was an interview with Dave Rakoff. He was telling a story about a scene from Double Indemnity (the film) that he carried in his wallet. He was doing perfect mimickry–so rare, so fine–of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in the James M. Cain thriller and I was laughing so hard, I was nearly in tears. I was thinking, not for the first time, how much I just loved Rakoff and his humor and his writing. I wondered briefly how his health was, since I knew he’d been battling a pretty gruesome cancer and when you’ve had cancer or are battling it yourself, you feel like anyone else with the disease is somehow in this club none of you really wants to belong to.
After this especially witty scene which had Gross, who is superb at circumspection and control in her interviews, laughing long and hard herself, there was a cut to a commercial. When Gross returned, she re-announced (I’d come in a few minutes late to the show) that she was re-running a series of her interviews with Rakoff (he was an NPR regular) because he had died suddenly the night before.
You always remember those intakes of breath when shock takes you over. I’d just been laughing literally two minutes before–really laughing. Out loud. Not LOL emoticon text laughing, but real laughing, from the gut, omigodyouaresofunny laughing.
And now, two minutes later, that voice, that perfect, rare, amazingly witty voice, was gone. Rakoff was dead.
Yet the interview resumed and mere moments later, I was laughing again. Because that’s what Rakoff’s power was: he could take you to tears and back. He could literally take you to his own grave and leave you laughing.
A few days before I learned of Rakoff’s death I’d been writing about Gore Vidal, the great literary lion and curmudgeon extraordinaire who declaimed his own grousiness, but who left a literary legacy that was vast and diverse and amazing. Now, I was contemplating the obituary of another gay writer, another essayist, another writer-actor-raconteur-bon vivant. Except Vidal got four more decades than Rakoff, because Rakoff died at 47, while Vidal was 86.
It’s hard to imagine what Rakoff might have done with another 40 years. He was smart, incisive, witty to the point where even Dorothy Parker might have been impressed and no one impressed her. He had a flair for almost everything–including his own long dying that ended suddenly and unexpectedly and left the kind of gaping wound that he described so well when he was writing about the return of his cancer a few years ago. (Previously he had written that surviving cancer–his first cancer, before the new cancer diagnosis–made him feel like a “dabbler.” Because he could even make cancer funny.)
Rakoff was defined in part by what he wasn’t. He was a Canadian Jew who moved to New York and never left. He had a degree in East Asian studies but joked that he forgot his Japanese. He wanted to be an actor but “as it turns out, I’m a deeply uncompelling camera presence.”
As a journalist, Rakoff was the king of the puff piece and wrote for everyone, from GQ to the New York Times Magazine to Slate to Vogue. His work appeared in numerous collections, including several edited by the late John Preston. But while Rakoff wrote about a myriad of topics, none terribly serious, in his books seriousness could not be avoided, especially as the issues of cancer and death and dying are raised.
Rakoff was a marvelous mimic, a fabulous raconteur, a warm, funny, mensch of a guy. He wrote incisively and with what the Fifties Beat poets called “cool,” but he was incredibly down-to-earth: you heard it in his pieces for “This American Life” on NPR which are so compelling and different and thought-provoking. And funny. So funny. (Check out “Christmas Freud” which is about the time he spent playing Freud in a department store window and talking to people about Christmas.)
Rakoff was born in Montreal November 27, 1964 and raised in Toronto by his parents, a doctor and a psychiatrist. He had a degree in East Asian studies from Columbia University and worked as a translator in Japan. There’s a hiccup in those early years: he was diagnosed with lymphoma at 22. His second cancer, sarcoma of the shoulder and arm, as he explained in some of his essays and in his last interview with Gross, was actually caused by the treatment he got for his first cancer.
He worked for over a decade in publishing, became friends with David Sedaris, who he called a mentor, and landed in several plays by both Sedaris and his sister, Amy. In 2009 he won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short, for The New Tenants, a supremely dark look at apartment renting for which he adapted the screenplay and in which he co-starred. He also appeared in several TV roles and film roles, but lamented in his hilarious way that he was, as a Jewish gay man, typecast as either “Fudgy McPacker or Jewy McHebrew.” Writing, he said, gave him more range.
And it did. Rakoff’s books are compulsively readable. He won Lammys for Fraud and Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artisinal Olive Oil and Other First World Problems.” Last year he won the Thurber Prize for American Humor for Half Empty.
His most moving pieces are about contemplating life without his left arm. “How do you know if you are having a heart attack?” He’d been told that he wouldn’t just lose the arm, he’d also lose the shoulder and part of his neck. He speaks of it with a studied nonchalance and dry humor, but one cannot help but gasp at the concept of such disfigurement, particularly remembering Rakoff writing in Fraud, “the central drama of my life is about being lonely, and staying thin, but fraudulence gets a fair amount of play.”
Rakoff wrote eloquently in that slightly removed quintessentially New York Way about everything and nothing, about life’s vicissitudes and laments as well as the temporary and contemporaneous joys. He was arch and wry and all those adjectives we rarely use anymore because they rarely suit. They suited Rakoff.
There is a poignancy in the final interview he did with Gross. One can hear the difference in his voice–it’s tired, it’s not quite as quick and smooth and sharp-edged. But the wit is still there and just amazing. It’s difficult to listen to and not imagine that Rakoff is still alive, still jotting down notes, still folding and refolding that scene of dialogue from Double Indemnity because he wants it found after his death so people will wonder about it.
It’s so easy to say someone will be missed, especially someone whose work you admire. I’ll miss Rakoff, definitely. But I will miss what he didn’t get the years and time to write even more.
(Photo via Mr. Segund0)