observations and opinion
The U.S. public radio show “This American Life” has been running so long and unearthing so much about present-day America, you half expect one morning its chief Ira Glass will come in to work and realize “there’s no life left to talk about – we’ve covered it all.” It is hard to imagine a better record, or testimonial to what the United States has been about, than the hundreds of yarns spun by the show’s producers over almost 20 years.
My first visit to TAL came at a friend’s office over lunch. Lee and I sat with sandwiches at her desk when she pointed to her computer – “listen to this!” For the next hour we swam in nostalgia about a shared passion, Frank Sinatra. But the magic wasn’t so much in the story as in the telling: a faintly astringent, not-too-ironic remoteness smoked through the tale, yet ultimately the work was affectionate. Not sweet, but warm. That’s This American Life.
Perhaps that sensibility drew David Rakoff to the show, or the show to David Rakoff. Rakoff was a writer and actor. A dancer too, as it turned out. He wrote plays and stories and, most potently, rhyming couplets that can only be described as “ferocious.” His was a mind so sharp, he often cut himself on it; so clever that he out-foxed himself, or so he said, from being happy. How often does humour break your heart? All the time, if you’re listening to David Rakoff.
The son of Jewish Toronto psychiatrists, Rakoff was roughly my contemporary and, had he chosen to attend law school in the 80s, like so many sons of Jewish Toronto psychiatrists, we might have been friends. But Rakoff had to be himself and so set out on a New York adventure, ultimately converting his exquisite talent and bleak wit into a unique form of expression. He wrote beautifully – he was a kind of Monet of mordant wit. If he ever said the word “droll” you can’t imagine how droll it would have sounded.
He was also plainly afflicted. Not just with the lurking cancer that ultimately killed him, but with a small bleating pulse of pain under the flesh. You can fairly feel the grief in him, chasing the words out of his mouth. I don’t know most of his work. If it is at all like his This American Life contributions, it can only be taken in small doses. The mind would buzz with it otherwise. The loneliness ached.
When pinned down by interviewer Terry Gross about a line from one of his books (“are you really ‘beloved by all, but loved by none’?”) Rakoff paused, said the question was too personal and then piped up cheerily, “Yes!” You laugh every time you hear it, because he is so bold, so brave and unforgiving in admitting his savage grief.
That perhaps was the beautiful, tragic thing about Rakoff: if he was afraid to love and be loved, he was brave enough to know it, and to say it, and to find a way of being in the world. When you watch his last dance – one arm limp and dead from cancer surgery nerve damage, the rest of him lithe, yet tight like a spring – you see the evocation of heartache. It is almost too painful to watch. Here was a man who was in this world so intensely, he burned through the air around him. Yet all the time, he was in hiding.
There may be some irony that a show called “This American Life” helped such a Canadian treasure bloom in our minds, and how it preserves him still, a butterfly under glass. TAL is ecumenical in that way – it points the flashlight and what you find, you find. The program’s archive is like that vault Harry Potter breaks into, where the treasures aren’t just piled up – they grow, and you scramble up the sides of it. Find “Our Friend David” in the heap.
When you hear Rakoff’s kibbutz story – which you must hear – you will find out what “almost too painful” means. Because, you see, she didn’t like the chickens. She liked men.