‘Half Empty’ by David Rakoff
There are no sacred cows in humorist David Rakoffâ€™s world. From the faux-preciousness of Jonathan Larsonâ€™s â€śRentâ€ť to the consumeristic vapidity of Disney World to Jewsâ€™ secret love of forbidden grub, Rakoff eviscerates idyllic Americana beliefs left and right in his truth-telling crusade. The loose, Thurber Prize-winning collection of autobiographical essays possesses all the sardonic wit of Wilde and Sedaris. Through his half-empty lens, the NPR monologist reveals the follies of â€śpositive thinkingâ€ť and side-eyes our far too-easily accepted, madcap world. Still, despite the comedic collectionâ€™s many rousing show-stopping numbers, Half Empty (Anchor) lacks the cohesiveness of his critically-acclaimed Fraud and Donâ€™t Get Too Comfortable.
Executed with wry humor, a GRE vocab, and a MENSA meeting of lofty ideas, Rakoff brings new meaning to the Mad TV sketch â€śLowered Expectations.â€ť His illumination of â€śdefensive pessimismâ€ť theory starts the romp off with a bang, but peters out midway through only to return in a series of greatest hits and a sentimental closing by the journeyâ€™s end.
Rakoff uses Dr. Julie Noremâ€™sâ€ť â€śThe Positive Power of Negative Thinking”Â as a jumping off point. Noremâ€™s theory utilizes defensive pessimism as a strategy for managing expectations, preparing for the worst to achieve the best, and as its own anti-anxiety medication (think Benzos for the drug-shy crowd). The theory undergirds the opening comedic essays that throw punches like an early Tyson with all the self-effacing awareness of Woody Allen. From â€śThe Bleak Shall Inherit the Earth,â€ť with its hilarious take on a precocious young Rakoff deadpanning in short pants, to â€śJuicy,â€ť with the thrills and trials of receiving privileged information, Rakoff gives rare distillation of everyday topics in ways consistent with the theoretical foundation of this collectionâ€™s title.
About halfway through, once the reader is fully in Rakoffâ€™s pocket, the affair gussies up. Rocking Oxfords and a button-down, the essays become decidedly more journalistic and less a laugh on every page. They also maintain their â€śdefensive pessimismâ€ť theme in sarcasm only. â€śA Capacity for Wonder: Three Expeditionsâ€ť benefits from Rakoffâ€™s time in the pages of the East Coast pedigreed magazines and newspapersâ€”from the New York Times to the New Yorkerâ€”in that they are well-crafted, but they also eerily feel like the spinach baked in the brownies of a shrewd mom. The Disney World Dream Home, a Hollywood history tour, and the Mormons all enjoy Rakoff deconstructions that slow the pacing and the yucks, but offer thoroughly researched insight and sly observations into worlds we only know by their P.R. surfaces.
The third act returns Rakoff to the prime time of his earlier works, with erotica balls and artistic self-absorption receiving particularly biting commentary. When a literary agent informs his clients that he is terminally ill and retiring accordingly, Rakoff captures the clientsâ€™ immediate responses (â€śBut, whoâ€™s gonna represent me?â€ť) with the kind of damaging Polaroids of humans behaving badly that Rakoff is the king of spotlighting with aplomb.
By the time the time â€śAnother Shoeâ€ť is presented, the Hallmark special-worthy survivor closer, we are willing to forgive David Rakoff his all too-vulnerable moment of classical dramatic poignancy. The ending is a riveting autobiographical tale of the authorâ€™s reflective expedition through our nationâ€™s health care system, family support, and his own frequently confronted mortality. â€śAnother Shoeâ€ť has all the makings of a very special episode of The Big C (isnâ€™t every episode of The Big C â€śspecial?â€ť) and reminds us all how lucky we are that our nationâ€™s witty gay, Jewish, Canadian-bred curmudgeon proves once again he can take a licking and keep on ticking. Who else is gonna represent us flip bastards?
By David Rakoff
Paperback, 9780767929059, 240pp
September 2011(Reprint Edition)