Living in a Material World
By Emily Gordon
When essayist David Rakoff takes a good look at himself—or anyone else, for that matter—the results are extremely endearing. One such feat of honesty takes place in the office of a fancy plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, where Rakoff is getting the lowdown on the state of his face on assignment from GQ. "I am not a handsome man," he reflects, matter-of-factly. "I have some pretty eyes and, like everyone, I have my moments."
He has plenty of them. In this collection of pieces for, among others, This American Life and Details magazine, Rakoff shoots glances into both common and extraordinary occasions and describes them with casually wicked panache. A freelance writer with a full deck of adventurous pitches, he's willing to put himself in any number of potentially humbling or enraging situations, not just in Beverly Hills but in, for instance, the company of both scary anti-gay and enigmatic gay Republicans.
Critics have compared Rakoff to humorists such as George Carlin and Dave Barry, but despite his occasional bursts of glee, Rakoff is far dreamier and uneasier—and more openly brainy—than those confident comics. At times, his style recalls the engaging modesty of David Sedaris. Yet Rakoff's most spirited inventions are delightfully off the map, and in an age of comedic and rhetorical meanness, he's a rare model of genuine empathy.
The subjects of "Don't Get Too Comfortable" (whose title echoes Rakoff's discomfort with narcissistic quests for material perfection) are various. In one piece, Rakoff—a native Canadian who's become an American citizen—muses on the nature of patriotism; in another, he champions Martha Stewart (they both make their own gifts). He accompanies—somewhat warily—a group of followers of "Wildman" Steve Brill, who forages for edible plants in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. He loiters in Cayo Espanto in the Caribbean with Latin American Playboy models and their crew during a shoot. He also works at a hotel pool in South Beach, does the Paris fashion shows, flies on the Concorde, goes on a Manhattan midnight scavenger hunt, reviews a play performed in the nude in Times Square, talks to people outside the "Today Show," attends the Extreme Life Extension Conference and fasts.
It is with these larger groups—Americans, Concorde passengers, the fashion aficionados he calls "the Ladies"—that his sharpshooting wavers somewhat. He's much better one on one: describing Diana Ross in "Mahogany" ("she drips melted wax onto her torso, laughing mirthlessly all the while"), indulging in a fantasy that Log Cabin Republican Patrick Guerriero will suddenly feel like buying Al Franken books with him, dolloping into a description of "Wild Man" Brill that the naturalist is "John Cleesing across Grand Army Plaza and into the park." When he really works to understand his more outlandish subjects, it shows in the urgency of his puzzlement.
And when he allows himself (or, perhaps, more to the point, when his editors allow him) to really go to town with his descriptions - "Glorious, glorious polyurethane! To your gorgeous fumes, a woozy hymn, with half the words missing! O resinous forgiver of countless mistakes, whose mirror-bright nacre confers authority, a glassy rime of reason to objects large and small! Hooray and huzzah, I wax for Miniwax!"—well, how can you resist? In those bursts of pure enthusiasm, he's a delectable Cole Porter, Nicholson Baker and Sarah Vowell smoothie.
"Don't Get Too Comfortable" may not be the final word on American consumerism—though Rakoff's political analysis is impeccable. But Rakoff's portraits of the consumers themselves are remarkably sound in their lightness, on par with the great Stephen Leacock's "Sketches of a Sunshine Town." Snark is fun, and high seriousness is satisfying, but Rakoff is most wonderful when he sets them both aside.(Published in Newsday, September 18, 2005)