Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, PerishLove Dishonor Marry Die Cherish Perish
David Rakoff
Doubleday
Release Date: July 16, 2013
ISBN 978-0-385-53521-2

If anyone had told me that I would be reading a novel that was completely written in verse, I would have rolled my eyes in a “heaven help us” gesture.  Epic poems are certainly not unknown in literature, but they are not exactly my go-to sort of thing.  Besides, this was not an epic poem ala Homer’s Iliad or Milton’s Paradise Lost – it was a novel written entirely in verse.  That might be a small distinction, but to me it seemed to speak volumes.

But I had heard something about the author, vaguely remembering his guesting on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart“, and I was intrigued.  Luckily for me, being intrigued has often brought me to some marvelous and beautiful things, and such is the case with David Rakoff’s slim novel, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish.

Lest anyone else be put off hearing that this is a 100+ page poem, let me assure you that it will be no impediment to enjoyment.  The book is written in rhyming couplets, specifically in anapestic tetrameter (a poetic meter that has four “metrical feet” per line; each foot has two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable).  But before you run screaming to the next county, know this:  ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas is also written in anapestic tetrameter, and that’s a fine read, eh?  This book is just as accessible as Clement Moore’s classic poem, even if the subject matter is a bit more worldly.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is a lovely, witty and sometimes quite melancholy and even brutal take on American life.  Through 12 unique vignettes, it moves somewhat chronologically through various characters, most of whom have only incidental or transitory relationships with each other; a random meeting on a train, for example, segues into the disabled, distant father of a different character.  It travels in time from the slaughterhouses of 1920s Chicago to the opulence of 1950s New York and the exuberant excess of 1970s San Francisco, followed by the ravaging AIDS epidemic of the 1980s to the inexorable crawl into the new century.  Youth fumbles with discovery, young men and women chase pleasures and fulfillment, and then must deal with loss and disease and death, both theirs and their loved ones’.  It’s eventually a sobering view, with added pathos due to the singsong of the verse, bringing the reader to the edge of sadness but never abject despair.

He’d loved “Touch of Evil”, when la Dietrich tells
The fortune of corpulent, vile Orson Welles:
“Your future’s all used up.”  So funny and grim.
But now that the same could be spoken of him.
It was sadness that gripped him, far more than the fear
That, if facing the truth, he had maybe a year.
When poetic phrases like “eyes, look your last”
Become true, all you want is to stay, to hold fast.

Yet there is beauty, too, and purity and innocence forever mixed in with the squalor and the acquiescence, there is discovery that sloughs away the dirt and grime of the journey.

Punctuated by cartoon portraits of the main players by famed graphic illustrator, Seth (of “Palookaville” fame), which, like the cadence of the text, lures the reader into perhaps a simplistic assumption of the stories to be told, this book is a testament to, well, perhaps not “less being more”, but “good things come in small packages”.  It is a fairly quick read (even if one slows down in order to savor it), yet its impact lingers, and not just because of its unique delivery.

Adding to the pathos of the book itself is the story of the author.  David Rakoff was a sharp, witty, self-deprecating writer, with three books of essays (Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable and Half Empty) and several contributions to various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and literary websites.  He also was a regular correspondent and occasional guest host of National Public Radio’s popular “This American Life” series.  Being a gay Jewish man from Canada living in a beloved New York gave him a depth of insight that fueled much of his writing, and his dark yet humane humor resonated with many.

Yet David Rakoff was another one of those with so much promise who died too soon.  He first struggled with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 22, enduring 18 months of intensive treatment with the cancer finally retreating.  However, in 2010, he was again diagnosed with Hodgkin’s, complicated by a post-radiation sarcoma located behind his left collarbone which threatened to force an amputation of his arm and shoulder.  This time the cancer won, and he died on August 9, 2012 at age 47.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish was published almost a year after David Rakoff’s death, and it clearly delineates just how much of a loss we suffer at his passing.  But we are also left with that which shines – his writer’s voice.

An insight that always cut keen as a knife
Whose wound was pure pleasure; Clifford loved, LOVED his life.
And credited most of that to his dear city,
He lived the reverse of what plagued Walter Mitty
No secrets, no longing, no desperate hoping
Just reach out and grab from a world cracked wide open.

These are stories worth telling, worth listening to – the ones on the page, and the one behind them.  In Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, the verse becomes the bonus, singing to us the stories of that world which is indeed cracked wide open.

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