A book writ in verse, an awesome achievement A sad, funny novel, a touching bereavement: “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die Cherish, Perish,” a review by Scott Stern

Reading Between the Lines
Rakoff sings of 20th century America
Rakoff sings of 20th century America // Creative Commons

Every review I’ve read so far has gotten the title wrong. The full title — as it was meant to be spoken, never read — is: “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die,/ Cherish, Perish, a novel by/ David Rakoff.” You see? It has to rhyme. And isn’t that the point?

David Rakoff’s first — and last — novel is truly a must-read. Rakoff, a wry and funny critic who passed away last year from cancer, wrote the entire book in anapestic tetrameter. It rhymes, it sings, it moves, it’s only 113 pages. The novel can easily be finished in an hour or two. But you won’t read it just once. And you won’t stop thinking about it for a long time.

As novelist Paul Rudnick wrote, the novel “didn’t make me love poetry, but it certainly affirmed my love for David Rakoff.” Only Rakoff could take such a clichéd and almost juvenile form and make it into something moving and entertaining, tragic and funny. “Love, Dishonor” is a story that lacks a clearly defined plot or set of characters. It jumps around in time and place, and at times it’s even a little difficult to follow. But it gets at so many simple truths, so many dark places in our history. The book is ultimately about death — written with an intimacy all too familiar.

“Love, Dishonor” tells the story of diverse characters — these characters are all connected, but to trace the connectedness would be quite difficult and highly unnecessary. The novel begins in the bloody slaughterhouses of turn-of-the-century Chicago. A girl is born of Irish immigrants, possessing nothing but a poor mother, a sadistic stepfather and a length of shocking red hair. Sexually abused, she runs from her plight, riding the rails of the Great Depression, comforted by a nameless man who senses her agony. Later, that man faces some serious family problems. In another place and another time, a prim girl finds happiness in her love of drawing, and then she becomes a prim secretary who sleeps with her boss and can’t move up in her job. A closeted gay boy comes to terms with himself in booming Southern California. He moves to San Francisco, gets caught up in the city and art and happiness, gets many sexual partners, gets AIDS. A man gives a sad and inappropriate yet moving toast at his ex-girlfriend’s wedding. A directionless woman changes her name to fit changing times — from Susan to Sloan to Shulamit. These characters together tell the story of 20th century America.

“Love, Dishonor” is not a happy book, yet neither is it a depressing one. It’s funny. When a gay pornographic cartoonist is attacked by conservative critics, he responds: “I know it won’t sway you the smallest scintilla/ To point out the sex is quite firmly vanilla.” It’s poignant. A dying character reflects: “In thrall to the twists of his brain’s involutions/ The cranial mists and synaptic occlusions/ He’d had to contend with since he’d has his first stroke/ Like trying to sculpt something solid from smoke.” It gives a bizarre sense of closure. Of the nuns at a Catholic school, Rakoff writes: “They meted out lashings and thrashings despotic/ (With a thrill she would later construe as erotic).”

Rakoff even maintains his politics to the bitter end. Here is a passage I had no choice but to quote in full, which surely will stand the test of history: “The drugmakers, government — all who’d forsaken/ The thousands — the murderous silence of Reagan/ Or William F. Buckley, the fucker at whose/ Suggestion that people with AIDS get tattoos;/ (The New Haven lockjaw, the glib erudition/ When truly, the man’s craven moral perdition/ Made Clifford so angry he thought he might vomit/ Or fly east, find Buckley’s address, and then bomb it.)” Even if you disagree with Rakoff’s sentiment, you can’t fault his poetry.

You have a tough decision to make — book or audiobook. The book is a comfortable, slender volume, illustrated with odd and endearing cartoons by Gregory “Seth” Gallant, the illustrator for some Lemony Snicket works, among others. But the audiobook is narrated by Rakoff himself, recorded within a month of his death. His voice — formerly so lively and expressive — is reduced to a rasping whisper. It’s as sad a form as it is darkly comedic.

Ultimately, the book does not have a happy ending, but it gives a satisfying sense of finality. It is the intentionally final work from a man who knew he was going to die. This wasn’t a guess; Rakoff had undergone four surgeries for cancer in as many years. He’d been working on parts of the novel for 10 years, but he could only finish it in the last weeks of life. Of death he writes simply (and with characteristic wit): “Inevitable, why even bother to test it,/ He’d paid all his taxes, so that left … you guessed it.”

David Rakoff will be missed.

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