There are no sacred cows in humorist David Rakoff’s world. From the faux-preciousness of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” to the consumeristic vapidity of Disney World to Jews’ 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 “positive thinking” and side-eyes our far too-easily accepted, madcap world. Still, despite the comedic collection’s many rousing show-stopping numbers, Half Empty (Anchor) lacks the cohesiveness of his critically-acclaimed Fraud and Don’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 “Lowered Expectations.” His illumination of “defensive pessimism” 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 journey’s end.

Rakoff uses Dr. Julie Norem’s” “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking” as a jumping off point. Norem’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 “The Bleak Shall Inherit the Earth,” with its hilarious take on a precocious young Rakoff deadpanning in short pants, to “Juicy,” 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 collection’s title.

About halfway through, once the reader is fully in Rakoff’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 “defensive pessimism” theme in sarcasm only. “A Capacity for Wonder: Three Expeditions” benefits from Rakoff’s time in the pages of the East Coast pedigreed magazines and newspapers—from the New York Times to the New Yorker—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 clients’ immediate responses (“But, who’s gonna represent me?”) with the kind of damaging Polaroids of humans behaving badly that Rakoff is the king of spotlighting with aplomb.

By the time the time “Another Shoe” 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 author’s reflective expedition through our nation’s health care system, family support, and his own frequently confronted mortality. “Another Shoe” has all the makings of a very special episode of The Big C (isn’t every episode of The Big C “special?”) and reminds us all how lucky we are that our nation’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?

 

Half Empty
By David Rakoff
Anchor
Paperback, 9780767929059, 240pp
September 2011(Reprint Edition)



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  • Michael Craft

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