Being funny, unashamedly angry, and deeply human is something a large number of people try and a relatively small number of people do well. One of the people I've always thought did it well was David Rakoff, who has died so very much too young — at 47 — most likely as a result of the tumor he announced he was battling in 2010, though details haven't emerged. As he told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, he learned he had this particular cancer while writing Half Empty, his book about pessimism.
Many of you probably know Rakoff primarily as a contributor to This American Life, where he's been storytelling since 1996. Fortunately, his work there is helpfully gathered on his contributor page, and you can sit and listen to all of it. You could do far worse things with your day.
Rakoff was an actor as well — I remember realizing suddenly, as I watched the Oscar-winning short film The New Tenants, that one of the leads was David Rakoff. That same David Rakoff, who I knew from This American Life, who wrote Don't Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never- Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems, an essay collection I'd happily flipped through at some point or another.
In the live show This American Life presented this spring, Rakoff talked about losing the use of his arm after surgery brought about by his tumor. He opened by talking about the portent of saying "Hey, watch this," as he did in a dream where he simply raised that "flail limb" — which he could no longer do. He went on to describe the changes in his routine: taking a shower, grating cheese, everything that was harder now. "Always, always, always have your bum hand safely out of the way," he noted, cautioning that otherwise, you might "cook [it] on the stove without even knowing it."
The audience laughed, a little, but they weren't sure.
He talked about being at a dinner with friends who longed for more in their lives. They wanted more fulfillment, less disengagement, more wholeness in various abstract, high-minded ways. And he compared it to being at dinner with triathletes when you have no legs. He detailed how being ill had changed him, how he wondered whether he could dance anymore. He wasn't sure. The rest, I encourage you to listen to for yourself, right through to the music: What'll I do with only dreams of you?
Rakoff was a practitioner of a kind of writing that can sometimes seem to have become ubiquitous somewhere between Usenet and Twitter, because everyone thinks they can do it: blistering, unforgiving, yes-I-said-it cultural criticism, dark and mad. But with Rakoff, everything bounced off a deeply human way of looking at other people — after all, it's only that humanity that makes your anger and your melancholy mean anything. Who cares if you can't dance if you wouldn't want to because hey, the hell with dancing? Who cares whether you despair for your society if you don't like anybody anyway?
David Rakoff was, for me, the antithesis of the empty and unsatisfying fascination with some kind of centimeter-deep "keeping it real." That, it turns out, is not mushy, gushy, sunshine-y insistence that everything is great. (His most recent book was about his commitment to pessimism, after all.) It's your own version of brutal truth that comes from engaging with the world rather than refusing to engage with it; from entering it and disrupting it as needed rather than standing outside of everything throwing rocks.
It's such a false choice, Fake vs. Mean. For one thing, you can be fake and mean — it happens all the time. But, like David Rakoff, you can also be genuine and enraged and passionate about the whole of humanity, even when (especially when) it disappoints and maddens and angers you.
When writers die, I'm always drawn to remembrances that are baldly loving and personal: Dan Savage, "Devastated." Starlee Kine, saying simply, "David." But for me, the sadness is undeniably selfish. I miss the maybe 30 more years of writing I somehow feel I was entitled to read and hear. I see it in my mind fading from printed pages, and I simply miss it.
Programming note: Fresh Air ran a special show today remembering David Rakoff.