David Rakoff was a mainstay on public radio's This American Life, and the best-selling author of Fraud, Don't Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty. He died of cancer in 2012 at the age of 47, shortly after finishing Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, a short novel in verse that jumps from decade to decade, tracking a panoply of American characters across the 20th century: 1920s slaughterhouse workers, 1950s office girls, AIDS victims and '80s yuppies.
Rakoff marries deft, humane observation with jauntily tripping verse structure — in places, you'll find yourself thinking of Dr. Seuss — to create a series of jewel-toned interlocking miniatures. NPR reviewer Alan Cheuse says "Rakoff makes such pairings as virago and Chicago, ceases and paresis, skittish and Yiddish, antelope and envelope, horas and Torahs, Alzheimer's and climbers, for 100 cleverly rendered and entertaining pages." In this excerpt, set in the 1980s, never-satisfied Susan is about to marry shallow lawyer Josh, and cruelly, she has invited her ex-boyfriend Nathan to give a toast at the wedding. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish will be published July 16.
Susan had never donned quite so bourgeois
A garment as Thursday night's Christian Lacroix.
In college — just five years gone — she'd have abhorred it
But now, being honest, she fucking adored it. The shoulders, the bodice, insane retro pouf,
Where once an indictment, now good, calming proof;
She'd no longer be tarred by the words "shame" or "greed," Tossed about by the weak. No, now Susan was freed!
If she wanted to spend half the whole day adorning
Herself, well what of it? The American Morning
Had dawned! At Oberlin stuff she'd feigned being above, Had turned into all that she most dearly loved.
And conversely, stuff she might actively seek
Now repelled her as sub-par, too lenient, and weak. Out was group therapy (adieu agoraphobics!),
In was massage, Silver Palate, aerobics.
Innermost was a Susan Improved and Untrammeled Sleeker and diamond-bright, sharp and enameled! She happily ate "poisonous" white-flour pasta
Whereas all those Ultimate Frisbee white Rastas
Didn't seem sexy and free anymore, And frankly, the U.S. in El Salvador
(Or out of it? Truly, she'd largely lost track
And hadn't the patience to find her way back),
Among frailer aspects of the human condition
Now just turned her stomach. Once-hated ambition
Awakened her senses like rarest perfume;
It could render her weak-kneed across a large room.
It was all large rooms lately, all beautifully appointed
And Susan had somehow been specially anointed
To stand in them prettily, playing her part: Girl at the nexus of commerce and art.
Her father was glad to augment the small salary She made as factotum at the Nonnie Cash Gallery. Nonnie was in the news seven months back
When she'd ended a group show by handing out crack. "Let's turn this new vice into something convivial!" (The chief of police called her "clueless and trivial.") Susan adored her and worshipped her style,
Loved her pronouncements of "perfect" and "vile," Loved the sheer whim, the madcap willy-nillyness
And how deeply seriously Nonnie took her own silliness
(Though she'd have loved Hitler, if forced to confess, If he had seen fit to have bought her that dress).
"The opening demands it!" Nonnie said on their spree, "And Spraycan can bloody well pay, thanks to me."
There was bourbon in hypos, doled out by chic nurses — in truth white-clad models — Osetra beggars' purses. The waiters were done up like Jean Genet felons:
Brush-cuts, fake shiners, with asses like melons. And serving as Boswells to Nonnie's new caper,
Scribes from East Village Eye, FMR, Paper. Nonnie barked orders in Urdu and Xhosa, And with a "Ragazzi, servite qualcosa!"
Came the blush that rose when her blood started to sing
From a room where the energy gets into swing. Look at this shit, she thought, pure onanism! Ransom-note lettering, sequins, and jism, Neiman impasto with touches of Basquiat,
Smoke, sizzle, bells, whistles ... all of it diddly-squat! Nonnie'd built him a name by dint of sheer will.
A bluff that distracted from his lack of skill. Despite what collectors seemed willing to pay, Spraycan 3000 had nothing to say.
Nathan was due as the evening wound down. They'd rented a car for a week out of town. Josh was in Chappaqua seeing his mom
They'd stop, pick him up, then continue right on
With luck they would reach the Cape not long past one, A week on the ocean had sounded like fun.
But then the foreboding that started to loom
When Susan saw Nate standing there 'cross the room, Clad in the uniform he'd worn since Ohio: Birkenstocks, drawstring pants (think Putumayo). With no small remorse, she thought, He and his mess Better not come near this fabulous dress.
-- — — — — --
Ah, whither love's ardor whose heat used to scorch her? Now his mere face can assail her like torture
And being alone with him renders her frantic
It makes her a hectoring shrew, a pedantic
Wet blanket, although it is also true, in her defense
That Nate can be maddeningly oafish and dense.
Who chips a mug without knowing it, or
Doesn't see that they've just spilt some milk on the floor? And once pointed out, he goes all Lotus
Position-y, saying mildly, "Wow. I didn't notice." She didn't want some belching, farting, or toga- Clad frat boy, but frankly, the wheat germ, the yoga Seemed ersatz, some also-ran version of "mellow," This go-with-the-flow, unassailable fellow,
She just didn't buy Nathan's pressure-wrought grace, And wanted sometimes just to slap that sweet face.
Now Day Three in Wellfleet, they've lost all their power Which means no hot water, no lights, and cold showers. And all Nathan does is repeat "This is cozy."
She thinks that perhaps she'll just get up and mosey
To where he is sitting to give him a smack. Maybe the blow would do something to crack This passive-aggressive façade for his shirking
Just going downstairs to get things back to working. Or maybe, she thinks, I'll just fuck your best friend. Now, something like that might just bring to an end
This constant pretending that everything's fine. Maybe then you might evidence some sort of spine.
A thunderstorm could be heard off in the distance. Susan had offered Josh any assistance.
"Sure," Josh replied, "you can come hold the ladder." Nathan kept reading, which just made her madder, And then madder still when he hadn't detected
Her tone, which was heavily sarcasm-inflected: "Need anything up here, Nate, before we're done?" "No, that's okay," Nate replied, "you guys have fun." "We will." Her smile had a slight rodentine tightness. Nathan went back to his Unbearable Lightness
Of Being, that summer's one de rigueur book, And, lost in the story, did not even look
Up from the page for an hour or more
When the others came through the basement stairs door. "You were gone for a while. Must have got a lot done."
"Oh, we did," Susan said, squinting, as the lights all surged on.
-- — — — — --
Take Posner's of Great Neck, the Falls at Niagara
And throw in that white marble tomb that's in Agra — Now if you compared the three places, you might Think the Taj and Niagara were hiding their light.
At Posner's, the subtle, subdued, and hermetic
Had no part to play. The rococo aesthetic — An Empire, Art Deco, Chinoiserie garble
Of crystal and frescoes and gilt and (yes) marble; A maximal, turbo-charged, top-drawer milieu — Appealed to a moneyed crowd of locals who Insisted on only the toppest of drawers,
Weddings befitting a Louis Quatorze. Venetian palazzo floors pounded by horas
Cut-velvet drapes framing chopped-liver Torahs. Ceilings adorned with Tiepolo clouds
Vaulted above the dressed-to-the-nines crowds
Who gave off their own light with such glinting frequency
(good thing one need not kill creatures for sequins).
Nathan, from one of the outlying tables,
His feet tangled up in the disc jockey's cables, Surveyed the room as unseen as a ghost
While he mulled over what he might say for his toast.
That the couple had asked him for this benediction
Seemed at odds with them parking him here by the kitchen. His invite was late — a forgotten addendum --
For Nate, there could be no more clear referendum
That he need but endure through this evening and then
He would likely not see Josh and Susan again.
That he had said yes was still a surprise,
And not just to him, it was there in the eyes
Of the guests who had seen a mirage and drew near
And then covered their shock with a "Nathan, you're here!" And then silence, they'd nothing to say beyond that.
A few of the braver souls lingered to chat
They all knew, it was neither a secret nor mystery That he and the couple had quite an odd history Their bonds were a tangle of friendship and sex. Josh his best pal once, and Susan his ex.
For a while he could hardly go out in the city
Without being a punch line or object of pity.
"Poor Nathan" had virtually become his real name
And so he showed up just to show he was game.
His shirt had been ironed, his belt brightly buckled, A shine on his shoes, a well-turned-out cuckold.
Susan's sister was speaking, a princess in peach.
"Hello, I am Mindy, and this is my speech.
Susan, you are the best sister plus you've always had great comic timing,
So I know you won't hold it against me when I do my specialty and
make my toast in rhyming. You've always been a terrific runner, even though it made your
Especially when you were impersonating Mrs. Zolteck from Tal- mud Torah
when we were at camp. Josh, we have become the best of friends and I'm so happy now I'm
But when we go out together let's try not to get blisters ..."
Nathan's mind wandered as Mindy meandered.
The effort he'd squandered, if this was the standard, Seemed hours badly wasted, until he recalled
That, time notwithstanding, he'd nothing at all. He'd pored over Bartlett's for couplets to filch
He'd stayed up 'til three and still came up with zilch
Except for instructions he'd underscored twice
Just two words in length, and those words were, "Be Nice!"
Too often, he'd noticed, emotions betray us
And reason departs once we're up on the dais.
He'd witnessed uncomfortable moments where others Had lost their way quickly, where sisters and brothers Had gotten too prickly and peppered their babbling With stories of benders or lesbian dabbling,
Or spot-on impressions of mothers-in-law,
Which, true, Nathan thought, always garnered guffaws
But the price seemed too high with the laughs seldom cloaking
Hostility masquerading as joking.
No, he'd swallow his rage and bank all his fire
He knew that in his case the bar was set higher.
He'd have to be careful and hide what his heart meant
(Disingenuous malice was Susan's department).
They'd be hungry for blood even though they had supped, Folks were just waiting for him to erupt
In tears or some other unsightly reaction,
And Nathan would not give them that satisfaction. Though Susan's a slattern, and Josh was a lout
At least Nathan knew what he'd not talk about:
I won't wish them divorce, that they wither and sicken, Or tonight that they choke on their salmon (or chicken). I'll stay mum on that time when the cottage lost power
In that storm on the Cape, and they left for an hour
And they thought it was just the cleverest ruse
To pretend it took that long to switch out the fuse.
Or that time you advised me, with so much insistence, That I should be granting poor Susan more distance. That the worst I could do was to hamper and crowd her, That if she felt stifled she'd just take a powder.
That a plant needs its space just as much as its water
And above all, not give her the ring that I'd bought her.
Which in retrospect only elicits a "Gosh!
I hardly deserved a friend like you, Josh."
No, I won't air that laundry, or make myself foolish
To satisfy appetites venal and ghoulish.
I will not be the blot on this hellish affair.
And with that Nathan pushed out, and rose from his chair. And just by the tapping of knife against crystal,
All eyes turned his way, like he'd fired off a pistol.
"Joshua, Susan, dear family and friends,
A few words, if you will, before everything ends And you skip out of here to begin your new life As happily married husband and wife.
You've promised to honor, to love and obey,
We've sipped our champagne and been cleansed with sorbet
All in endorsement of your Hers and His-dom. So, let me add my two cents' worth of wisdom. Herewith, as a coda to this evening historical
I just thought I'd tell you this tale allegorical.
I was wracking my brains sitting here at this table
Until I remembered this suitable fable. Each reptilian hero, each animal squeal
Serves a purpose, you see, because they reveal
A truth about life, even as they distort us
So here is 'The Tale of the Scorpion and Tortoise.'
The scorpion was hamstrung, his tail all aquiver. Just how would he manage to get 'cross the river?
'The water's so deep,' he observed with a sigh,
Which pricked at the ears of the tortoise nearby.
'Well, why don't you swim?' asked the slow-moving fellow.
'Unless you're afraid. Is that it, you are yellow?'
'That's rude,' said the scorpion, 'and I'm not afraid
So much as unable. It's not how I'm made.'
'Forgive me, I didn't mean to be glib when
I said that, I figured you were an amphibian. The error was one of misclassification
I mistakenly figured you for a crustacean.'
'No offense taken,' the scorpion replied.
'But how 'bout you help me to reach the far side? You swim like a dream, and you have what I lack. What say you take me across on your back?'
'I'm really not sure that's the best thing to do,' Said the tortoise, 'Now that I see that it's you.
You're the scorpion and — how can I say this? — just ... well ... I don't know I feel safe with you riding my shell.
You've a less-than-ideal reputation preceding.
There's talk of your victims, all poisoned and bleeding, That fact by itself should be reason sufficient.
I mean, what do you take me for, mentally deficient?'
'I hear what you're saying, but what would that prove? We'd both drown so tell me, how would that behoove Me, to basically die at my very own hand
When all I desire is to be on dry land?'
The tortoise considered the scorpion's defense.
When he gave it some thought, it made perfect sense. The niggling voice in his mind he ignored
And he swam to the bank and called out 'Climb aboard.'
The tortoise was wrong to ignore all his doubts Because in the end, friends, our true selves will out. For, just a few moments from when they set sail
The scorpion lashed out with his venomous tail.
The tortoise, too late, understood that he'd blundered
When he felt his flesh stabbed and his carapace sundered. As he fought for his life, he said, 'Please tell me why
You have done this, for now we will surely both die!'
'I don't know,' cried the scorpion. 'You never should trust
A creature like me, because poison I must.
I'd claim some remorse or at least some compunction
But I just can't help it. My form is my function. You thought I'd behave like my cousin the crab But unlike him, it is but my nature to stab.'
The tortoise expired with one final quiver
And then both of them sank, swallowed up by the river."
Nathan paused, cleared his throat, took a sip of his drink. He needed these extra few seconds to think.
The room had grown frosty, the tension was growing, Folks wondered precisely where Nathan was going. The prospects of skirting fiasco seemed dim
But what he said next surprised even him.
"So what can we learn from their watery ends? Is there some lesson on how to be friends?
I think what it means is that central to living
A life that is good is a life that's forgiving.
We're creatures of contact, regardless of whether to kiss or to wound, we still must come together. Like in Annie Hall, we endure twists and torsions For food we don't like, and in such tiny portions! But, like hating a food but still asking for more
It beats staying dry but so lonely on shore.
So we make ourselves open, while knowing full well It's essentially saying, 'Please, come pierce my shell.' So ... please, let's all raise up our glasses of wine
And I'll finish this toast with these words that aren't mine:
Yet each man kills the thing he loves, By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look, Some with a flattering word, The coward does it with a kiss, The brave man with a sword!"
Where first it seemed that Nathan had his old resentments cleanly hurdled,
The air now held the mildest scent of something sweet gone meanly curdled.
The thorough ambiguity held guests in states of mild confusion
No one raised their eyes, lest a met glance be taken for collusion.
Silence doesn't paint the depth of quiet in that room
There was no clinking stemware toasting to the bride or groom.
You could have heard a petal as it landed on the floor.
And in that quiet Nathan turned and walked right out the door.
The urinal's wall was The King and His Court, A work done in porcelain, precisely the sort Of tableau of gentility at Le Petit Trianon,
A cast of nobility, designed for the peeing on. Nate turned his gaze as he hosed down the scene, It seemed an especially brutish and mean Treatment of all the baroque figures in it
(Such unlucky placement, poor girl at her spinet). He needed this pit stop before he took off
To go catch his train, when he heard a slight cough.
There, twisting a swan's head in gold for hot water
Was Lou, who had bankrolled this day for his daughter.
Lou had scared Nathan for all of the years
He was with Susan, and now the sum of his fears Was here, now the chickens had come home to land. "The man of the hour, with his schvantz in his hand." Nathan started to say that he knew how he blew it
And how he was sorry, but Lou beat him to it;
Lou, who was blunt — some said boorish — and rich. But a mensch deep at heart, said, "My Suzy's a bitch. You'd think that today I'd be proud, that I'd kvell,
But I followed you out here just so I could tell You: she told her friends she would be able to get You to come give a toast. It's a monstrous bet, Made all the more awful that her Day of Joy
Was still incomplete, and abusing a boy
In a trick was the thing that she wanted above All else. It's the mark of a girl who can't love. Ach, Nathan, this day is a stroke of bad luck.
You, cast in this play, and then played for a schmuck. But think of it this way, she'll wake up tomorrow
And still be unhappy. And that is my sorrow."
Lou turned off the swan's head, once more checked his tie, Held his arm out and said, "This is good-bye."
He shook Nathan's hand and then made for the door
Where he paused and he turned to say just one thing more. "That toast, if you give it again (but you won't),
Remember, Nate: turtles swim, tortoises don't."
Copyright with permission of the Estate of David Rakoff and Irene Skolnick Literary Agency 2013. Reprinted with permission from Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc
Audio excerpted from Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff. Copyright 2013 by The Estate of David Rakoff. Excerpted by permission of Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced without permission in writing from the publisher.