Novel takes on heavy topics in style of light verse

BOOK REVIEW

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEJuly 28, 2013 

  • ‘LOVE, DISHONOR, MARRY, DIE, CHERISH, PERISH’ by David Rakoff; Doubleday ($26.95)

Anapestic tetrameter is a much cheerier form of verse than its name suggests.

Yes, each line has four feet, and each foot has three syllables, two unstressed and the third delivered with a beat. It is less solemnly known as the singsong meter from “ ’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house” and Dr. Seuss’ “Yertle the Turtle,” and it is playful almost by definition. This is a way of saying that David Rakoff’s first novel, completed only weeks before he died last year at 47, is much sunnier and more heartening than it has any right to be.

The meter is so tricky and incongruous that it becomes this sly, bravura book’s main witticism. In this 113-page, book-length narrative poem, a marvel of gamesmanship, Rakoff describes hardship, illness, death and depravity, knowing how ingeniously his book’s style and substance would fight each other.

Just for starters, Rakoff enlivens his portrait of Margaret, the first colorful character in a parade of them, with a Dickensian childhood too bouncy to be truly horrifying. Of the nuns who taught Margaret at school and provoked her hatred, he writes: “They meted out lashings and thrashings despotic/(With a thrill she would later construe as erotic).” Margaret’s hard-luck story also includes the facts that her father was trampled by horses and that her stepfather raped and impregnated her. Drawn as a plump, apprehensive baby and then as a sad-eyed, glamorous redhead by the illustrator known as Seth, Margaret adorns a book jacket that is exceptionally attention-getting even for its renowned designer, Chip Kidd.

Rakoff frames “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish” as a series of vignettes, in chronological order, that pin different forms of love and disillusionment to different points in time. On their own, each of these stories — like Margaret’s humiliation, set in the 1920s — is more than a little stereotypical. They range from Clifford, a gay man with a highly theatrical mother (“She found it amusing and helped pass the day/To speak like a guest at a fancy soiree”) who comes of age during World War II, to his cousin Helen, one of those ’50s career women who naively gets talked into bed by her boss.

His poetic tempo doesn’t keep Rakoff from stating harsh truths. After Helen has been had by that supervisor:

“The hideous reason behind his new glow is

“What Helen — and many just like her — don’t know is

“That men’s moods turn light and their spirits expand,

“The moment they sense an escape is at hand.

“He patted her cheek as he said, “I’m replenished,”

“Then off through the crowd for the next train to Greenwich.”

The narrative cliche that this encounter embodies is, in its way, as soothingly familiar as the rhyming.

Rakoff was far too young to have left behind this grace note or any other. But future readers can turn to this book to remember why he was so widely appreciated and is sorely missed.

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