It's tempting to treat David Rakoff's slim debut novel, written in rhyming verse, as a whimsical trifle.
In large part, this has to do with the poetic meter he's chosen. Anapestic tetrameter (if you want to get eggheady about it) is often chosen for humorous and light-hearted work -- it's the meter of The Night Before Christmas and several Dr. Seuss works.
And it's true that Love, Dishonour... is often very funny -- it wouldn't be Rakoff if it weren't. But the book (published posthumously; the Montreal-born writer rushed to finish it and record the audio book before his death from cancer in 2012 at age 47) is deceptive. The sing-song rhythm of the stanzas makes for a breezy read (Paradise Lost this isn't) but the interlocked stories are far from doggerel.
Rakoff has created an entire world here, replete with fully realized characters and indelible imagery, and full of beauty and despair -- not to mention rape, adultery, disease and, as the title indicates, death.
New Yorker Rakoff, a fixture on U.S. National Public Radio's This American Life on and the author of books of essays including Fraud and Half-Empty, is the master of a comedic style that masks a deeply melancholy but unsentimental heart. That gift is on display in Love, Dishonour..., which spans years and cities, linking together its characters in unexpected ways.
The story starts with Margaret, an unfortunate red-headed child, abused by her stepfather, disowned by her mother, set out to ride the rails, where she is comforted by a Jewish hobo. It traipses through hot, hellish Burbank, Calif., where young Clifford is growing up with a delightful, drama-queen mother and getting in touch with his unconventional desires.
It passes through San Francisco, where the artistic Clifford dips his quill into a variety of inkwells, and follows his beloved cousin Helen's unfortunate affair with her boss.
Perhaps the most moving chapters belong to Clifford, whose life is first touched by the AIDS crisis when friends start to drop: "And what could one say about poor lovely Marty?/ Whose fever spiked high at his own dinner party / Between the clear soup and the rabbit terrine / By eleven that night he was in quarantine."
When Clifford himself gets ill, Rakoff brings his mordant wit to bear on the necessities of the sick bed: " 'Make sure,' 'be prepared,' plan out any endeavour / Like a scout on the stupidest camping trip ever.... He thought of those two things in life that don't vary / (Well, thought only glancingly; more was too scary) / Inevitable, why even bother to test it / He'd paid all his taxes so that left... you guessed it."
In another brilliant chapter, a fellow named Nathan toasts newlyweds Josh and Susan (the latter was stolen from him by the former) with beautifully passive-aggressive adaptation of the fable of the tortoise and the scorpion.
The gorgeous cover design and perfect illustrations (by Canadian artist Seth) are not incidental -- Rakoff was an ardent crafter who cared deeply about esthetics.
There's little doubt that the author was rushed to complete the book -- in one chapter, he uses the word "bonelessly" three times and some of the rhymes do feel a bit forced. But you can almost feel him winking at you with some of the more tortured enjambments, as if to say, "I've really hamstrung myself with this form, but isn't it droll the way I've weaseled my way out of this tight corner?"
Far from being a trifle, Rakoff's swan song is full of insight and humanity; it's the kind of book you want to quote endlessly and buy for friends. It makes the untimely death of this talented man all the more heartbreaking.
Jill Wilson is editor of the Free Press Uptown entertainment section.