by David Rakoff
A collection of humorous essays, both autobiographical and based on journalistic assignments. A homosexual and a Jew, Rakoff plays up his neuroses and fears as he discusses his early career in publishing as the bottom rung of the assistant ladder; the cancer that forced him to leave Japan where he worked as a translator; his work as a bit actor in television. He’s self-effacing and funny, but also startlingly perspicacious; his insight on how teachers think (in his piece on Austrian cultural-exchange teachers in New York City) is full of empathy and understanding. He comes off as a far more erudite David Sedaris, name-dropping writers, classic movies, Freud’s Dora, and characters from literature, all with wit and élan (of a bluff old retired pilot who fixes up houses: “there’s a sad whiff of mortality… like watching ‘This Old House’ hosted by Beaudelaire”).
An actor, writer, spoken-word performer and not-too-bad draftsman (he did the chapter illustrations for this book), Rakoff comes off in this book as a talented man weighted down by fears and neuroses, the classic over-educated person whose very learning causes distress by revealing the complexity and indifference of the vast world – which made it all the sadder when I learned that he died of cancer last year. All of the pieces in this book have humor, pathos, and poignancy; they really do evoke a sense of being alone in the world. I enjoyed “In New England Everyone Calls You Dave,” an account of hiking up a small mountain in New Hampshire and how it brought to mind Rakoff’s ill-fated time on a kibbutz, and “Christmas Freud,” in which Rakoff plays Freud for a Christmas window at Barney’s, the most. They’re easily the funniest stories, and let Rakoff explore the absurd in the quotidian, and self-reflection in the absurd.