Reading the new novel in verse by David Rakoff, you can hear his voice again, wordy, so witty, a little worried, and always wise. The author and “This American Life” regular, who died of cancer last August at 47, seems to be reading the long lines aloud in your mind’s ear, as they steadily tumble forth in anapestic tetrameter. His mordant humor, his compassionate vision, his moral questioning, his sharp honesty, they’re all intimately wedded to the meter and the zestful diction of the book. Even the volume’s mouthful of a title, “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish,” evokes the fullness of Rakoff’s delivery.
Rakoff completed this small novel shortly before he died, and it is a lovely parting gift. He is best known, perhaps, for his rich essays about self-acceptance, compromise, perspective, and life in America, which were collected in the books “Fraud,” “Don’t Get Too Comfortable,” and “Half Empty.” But the new direction he takes in “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish” brings out the best in him, too, as he fits his voice into a tighter form without ever becoming a slave to that form. He is as vital, as blackly comic, as bursting forth with detail, as vernacular, and as poignant in metered verse as he is in his effortlessly long prose sentences. Each couplet here equally serves the structural rules, the story, and Rakoff’s matchless sensibility.
What is “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish” about, beyond Rakoff’s voice? The narrative is ambitious and has sweep, despite the slimness of the book. Rakoff jumps among a handful of disparate characters and interlocking tales, all spanning the 20th century and a number of American cities. This six-degrees-of-separation style bears comparisons to fragmented novels such as Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Good Squad” and Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin”; the writer delivers the puzzle in pieces, and we gradually put them together. Moving from story to story, we feel both the confusion and disconnection of the chapters’ seeming randomness, and then, gradually, we feel the satisfaction of finding the links among them. The overall effect of “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish” is that of a wide, carefully assembled collage.
The book opens with the Dickensian birth of a red-haired infant named Margaret, whose mother is a 19-year-old widow working in an early 20th-century Chicago slaughterhouse. At 12, Margaret falls prey to her violent Bill Sikes of a stepfather and gets a “Magdalene Sisters”-like response from her mother, who blames the victim. Next we’re in postwar Southern California, where we meet the artistic young Clifford, and then follow his beloved cousin Helen to 1950s Manhattan, where, after she has an affair with her boss, she’s dogged by the kind of office sexism that fuels “Mad Men.” As if a cosmic tour guide, Rakoff moves onward into the sexual freedoms of 1960s San Francisco and a hollow New York marriage bred during the Reagan era.
Small acts of humanity emerge in chapter after chapter, forming a flickering constellation of grace over the novel. The harshness of life and fate is ever present in Rakoff’s world — the title, after all, includes dishonor, die, and perish — from Margaret’s rape to Clifford’s presence in San Francisco during the 1980s AIDS epidemic. Helen’s struggle, when her work colleagues turn their backs on her in unison and she submits to a primitive abortion, is particularly somber. But then the slight but indelible kindnesses assert themselves — the benevolence of a sister-in-law toward a man paralyzed by a stroke, for instance:
“Sally was truly the bestest of eggs, / She’d spend hours massaging the chicken-bone legs / Of Cliff’s unresponsive but darting-eyed father, / She’d keep up the chatter, like it was no bother.”
The sweet early bond between young cousins Clifford and Helen is redemptive, too, and ultimately not only for the two of them. It’s as if, by the end of the novel, their love and mutual respect are paying it forward to a complete stranger. That’s one of the beauties of “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish,” how the generosity of spirit between two complete strangers is often the most resounding of blessings. Riding a boxcar west, shivering and alone, the 12-year-old Margaret is comforted by an older, unknown hobo, and a man named Josh continues to care for his mother, even while she has Alzheimer’s and treats him like a stranger:
“This being a stranger was like being dead, / And brought to mind how, in a book he had read / That most folks misunderstood one common state: / The flip side of love is indifference, not hate.”
“Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish” has been packaged without a hint of indifference by designer Chip Kidd, and it prominently features character portraits by the cartoonist Seth. The pairing of Rakoff and Seth works nicely. Seth captures the loneliness and the weightiness of the stories without overdramatizing them, with just the starkness of grayish faces and shadows. His simple illustrations also have enough retro styling to suggest the historical eras that Rakoff writes about, as well as the passage of time. And, perhaps most important, Seth’s imaginings of Rakoff’s world don’t dominate Rakoff’s words so much as accompany them lightly. Drawings that set out to compete with such an agile, vivid, and entertaining piece of writing would, of course, be doomed.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.