Full Heart: A Tribute to David Rakoff
The recent death from cancer of David Rakoff, the author of three acclaimed collections of essays, is a huge loss to comic literature and, to his fortunate friends, it’s also the loss of a man who exemplified living with extraordinary courage and compassion.
The first time I saw David Rakoff was in 1995. He was starring in the David and Amy Sedaris play, One Woman Shoe. David played Philip Scaldwell, a nasty-queen civil servant who ran a welfare program that made women perform one-woman shows for their relief checks. He also played a blue-collar heterosexual janitor in the play, and both performances were hilariously convincing.
I must have read a rave review of his debut collection of comic essays Fraud since I own a signed first edition. His writing immediately made me a fan of his seemingly effortless brilliance. I’ve always believed Jane Austen inaugurated the literary rule with the opening line in Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” that the first sentence or paragraph of comic essays and novels must establish that the author is funny.
David clearly was a disciple of Miss Austen’s rule. His first essay, “In New England Everyone Calls You Dave,” begins, “I do not go outdoors. Not more than I have to. As far as I’m concerned, the whole point of living in New York City is indoors. You want greenery? Order the spinach.” I was hooked. Then a few pages later, he made me envious with an I-Wish-I’d-Thought-Of-That line about how many gay men tend to use their full names instead of shortening James to Jim. He also demonstrated how to create a comic character with the precision of his description of the owner of the bed- and-breakfast he was staying at:
The proprietress is the kind of tall stalwart woman of a certain age that used to be called “handsome.” She is approximately nine feet tall. Her jaw is a feat of architecture, her eyes bright and resolute, her faithful dog Blue at her side. She smiles at me warmly and introduces herself as Hannah, extending a hand the size of a frying pan. “You must be Dave,” she says. (In New England everyone calls you “Dave” regardless of however many times you might introduce yourself as David. I am reminded of those fanatically religious homophobes who stand on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral during Gay Pride, holding signs that say, “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” I have always wanted to go up to them and say, “Well, of course not Adam and Steve. Never Adam and Steve. It’s Adam and Steven.”)
David and I first met in Los Angeles at a party thrown by the accomplished television writer Alexa Junge. They were old friends who had met as undergraduates at Columbia. That night I discovered David was as witty and erudite in his conversation as he was in his essays.
In 2006, I’d sold my first novel Selfish and Perverse and was trying to get blurbs from every comic writer I admired. Mark O’Donnell, the comic novelist and Tony Award- winning playwright for Hairspray supplied the first one, and then he suggested asking David Rakoff. (Mark died about a week before David. I’m just hoping gay comic writers don’t die in threes.) I contacted David, and he immediately agreed to read my novel. A week later my cell phone rang. It was David. He went on and on about how he loved the book, and we had a long conversation. Of course, his quote was funny: “Who is this ‘Bob Smith’ and why is he reluctant to use his real name? He should be proud, because Selfish and Perverse is a fantastically entertaining book. Something this funny has no right to also be this beautifully written.”
Well-written praise for your book from a writer you admire is always better than any book review. At that time, I needed an ego boost since I was also undergoing a series of endless medical tests for an unidentified neurological problem. Four months later, I was diagnosed with ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, the only disease that’s been honored in the Baseball and Terminal Illness Hall of Fame. Discussing our health problems became a bond in my friendship with David.
The last essay in Fraud is about David dealing with Hodgkin’s disease when he was twenty-two. Of course, David was witty about that: “Hodgkin’s is also highly curable. So curable, in fact, I like to call it the dilettante cancer.” David believed the radiation treatments he received to attempt to cure his Hodgkin’s — they didn’t, chemotherapy did — gave him the cancer which killed him at forty-seven.
Our mutual illnesses gave us a conversational ease that made spending any time with David enjoyable. One night we had dinner at Veselka, the Ukrainian restaurant on Second Avenue, and we laughed and laughed about our perilous plights. Not that we didn’t have serious conversations about politics and writing.
David was always, in his life and writing, proud about being Jewish, gay, and Canadian. I’m descended from a long line of Canadians through my father’s side, and my son and daughter are being raised by two lesbians in Toronto, so this was another tie that we shared. One of my kids’ parents is the stand-up comedian Elvira Kurt, and David was a fan of her work and also a friend of hers. David and I both firmly championed the superiority of Canada’s universal health-care coverage over our wealth-care system.
In his writing, David often displayed a Swiftian sharpness about people who lacked compassion. In his second collection of essays, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, an essay about applying for American citizenship, there’s a passage about Barbara Bush that’s worth quoting in its entirety:
While we’re on the subject of the horrors of war, and humanity’s most poisonous and least charitable attributes, let us not forget to mention Barbara Bush (that would be former First Lady and presidential mother as opposed to W’s liquor-swilling, Girl Gone Wild, human ashtray of a daughter. I’m sorry, that’s not fair. I’ve no idea if she smokes). When the administration censored images of the flag-draped coffins of the young men and women being killed in Iraq — purportedly to respect “the privacy of the families” and not to cover up and minimize the true nature and consequences of war — the family matriarch expressed her support for what was ultimately her son’s decision by saying on Good Morning America on March 18, 2003, “Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? I mean, it’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?
Mrs. Bush is not getting any younger. When she eventually ceases to walk among us we will undoubtedly see photographs of her flag-draped coffin. Whatever obituaries run will admiringly mention those wizened, dynastic loins of hers and praise her staunch refusal to color her hair or glamorize her image. But will they remember this particular statement of hers, this “Let them eat cake” for the twenty-first century? Unlikely, since it received far too little play and definitely insufficient outrage when she said it. So let us promise herewith to never forget her callous disregard for other parents’ children while her own son was sending them to make the ultimate sacrifice, while asking the rest of us little more than to promise to go shopping. Commit the quote to memory and say it whenever her name comes up. Remind others how she lacked even the bare minimum of human integrity, the most basic requirement of decency that says if you support a war, you should be willing, if not to join those nineteen-year-olds yourself, then at least, at the very least, to acknowledge said war was actually going on. Stupid fucking cow.
The esteemed novelist and non-fiction writer Christopher Bram and I were discussing David’s writing and Chris said, “I fell in love with his writing as soon as I started reading. Every sentence landed and did something.” Chris reminded me of David’s essay on gay Republicans, “Beat Me, Daddy.” David meets with several gay Republicans and is unfailingly patient and fair with them, although he eviscerates Robert Knight, the homophobic director of the Culture and Family Institute who is obsessed with anal sex. When Mr. Knight says, “The vagina is designed to accommodate a penis. It can take a lot of punishment.” David just adds, “My regards to Mrs. Knight.”
Finally though, David’s intrinsic compassion can’t handle the indifference of gay Republicans and he writes, “Not to get too Henry Fonda in the final monologue of The Grapes of Wrath about it, but whenever there is a woman whose health is endangered because the right has outlawed a medical procedure, [Patrick] Guerriero and the Log Cabinites will be there.” He goes on to write that gay Republicans are primarily driven by greed. “Those sacred GOP tenets of smaller government, personal responsibility…(are) a cargo-cult fantasy of a Karl Rovian utopia where the social safety net has been dismantled and the economic windfall rains down upon the lucky few. Come for the cash, stay for the homophobia.”
A brush with death, for most people, means you become more compassionate — except for Dick Cheney who’s had five heart attacks, but becomes meaner with each one, clearly demonstrating that he’s sold his soul to the fallen Angel of Death. David, in his last book of essays, Half Empty, wrote what turned out to be his final piece about his new cancer. In that essay, he writes a paragraph that explains why he is so beloved:
There is little in this world that I find more galvanizing than someone else in trouble. I am well aware of how dubious that sounds, coming from someone who makes a living writing in the first person. I am the furthest thing from a do-gooder. I am venal and glib and too clever, by half, I know, but the thrill of the most brilliantly quicksilver apercu is no match for the self-interested high I get from having done someone a good turn. You’d think I’d do more good turns as a result, but there you go.
David proved his inherent generosity with my best friend the comedian and author Eddie Sarfaty. Eddie wrote Mental: Funny In The Head, a book of comic essays, and asked David for a blurb. David politely refused due to the stress of trying to finish his next book of essays, Half Empty. (This was true because I remember David complaining that he was having trouble finishing the manuscript.) By the time Eddie’s book came out, David had read it and loved it. He came to Eddie’s first reading, gave him a box of homemade cookies, and couldn’t have been sweeter.
My partner Michael Zam knew David from 1990, having met him through an ex. Michael wrote the book for the musical, The Kid, based upon Dan Savage’s memoir. We picked a night to invite all our writer friends to see the show, and Edmund White came along with David. (There’s a song in the show that mentions Edmund.) Michael was thrilled that David loved the play. In fact, David baked some chocolate shortbread as a thank you gift for Michael and, to this day, Michael claims they’re the best cookies he ever ate. (I was allowed to have one and agree with Michael.)
David is one of the most observant writers I’ve ever known. In his essay on Hodgkin’s disease, he mentioned being treated at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto where there’s a bizarre and memorable X-ray of Princess Margaret’s hand adorned with jewelry on display in the lobby. One time we had David to dinner at our apartment, and he commented on two intricately painted rocks I keep on a side table. They were a gift from a woman in Alaska who had a long history of emotional problems. She gave them to me out of gratitude. On a previous visit, I had treated her as an artist and took a serious interest in her work. (I have only a vague recollection of this.) We’ve entertained a lot of writers and artists in our apartment, but I’m still impressed that only David noticed and commented on the rocks.
It makes sense since David was also accomplished at drawing. When he gave Michael his cookies, they came with a self-portrait of David. For years, that drawing has been tucked into the corner of an Irish pub mirror in our living room. It’s time to get it framed. Neither Michael nor I ever want to lose sight of a great friend and writer.