A Novel

By David Rakoff

Doubleday. 113 pp. illustrated. $26.95

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Hillary Rea

A few pages into

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish

, the pleasurable act of sitting down and reading a book shifts to something jarringly active.

Writer David Rakoff is best known for his contributions to the PBS radio program This American Life and his two best-selling collections of first-person essays that marinate every word in the intellectual wit of a contemporary New York humorist. In this 113-page novella, he offers an entirely new flavor: rhyming couplets.

Love, Dishonor is written in anapestic tetrameter, the syllabically singsongy style of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." But despite the comic-book illustrations (provided by the one-name cartoonist Seth) that accompany the text, this setup is in no way juvenile. Within the structure of this meter, Rakoff has devised a challenge as stimulating as the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle.

Each page is filled with poetic pairs that outdo the ones that come before it. Rakoff's verbosity is intentional, and as the pattern of his poetry syncs in, the game becomes more about his word choice and less about what happens within the story. Every line teeters between ostentatious and merited.

However, the time-traveling story line has its own sense of play. Spanning nearly 10 decades of Americana, Rakoff introduces us to a lineage of characters, connected by blood but also by the actions presented in the book's title. With so few words on the page, one must play the game and figure out who is connected to whom and their whys and the hows. And what year is this?

The plot moves briskly through its chronology, from a Dickensian tale set in a 1920s Chicago slaughterhouse to a gay illustrator in 1960s San Francisco to a power couple in Manhattan in the '80s. With the turn of a page, it is instantly clear that the story has moved to a new era in history. "Out was group therapy (adieu agoraphobics!), In was massage, Silver Palate, aerobics."

There is whimsical imagery for the Depression-era characters, and delightful pop-culture references for those more modern.

"The father, a raven-haired man, Japanese, / The mother, with hair like the autumnal trees, / And children just Western enough so's to pass / With tresses the color of bright polished brass."

"Clad in the uniform he's worn since Ohio: / Birkenstocks, drawstring pants (think Putamayo)."

It is hard to separate the details of each plot point and the introduction to each character from the bounce of each sentence and the wordplay within. With each line limited to 12 syllables, the exactitude of Rakoff's words conjure imagery and backstory that is almost more complex than the poem's infrastructure. Yet somehow, it's fun to get lost in the complexities of both style and story.

The standout section of this piece is a wedding scene in which Nathan (the crunchy-granola fellow described above) is invited to make a speech at his ex-wife Susan's wedding to his good friend Josh. As part of his toast, Nathan recites a poem within the poem, titled "The Tale of the Scorpion and the Tortoise." The fable ends with a fabulous punchline that not only tampers with Nathan's uncomfortable circumstance, but also serves as rim shot for Love, Dishonor's overall sense of acute wordplay. Oh, Rakoff, you've done it again.

But sadly, this is the last great work by Mr. Rakoff, who lost his life to cancer at age 47, just a week or so after finishing this novel. Toward the end of the book, as several characters deal with death and the decay of old age, there is a heaviness that sinks even deeper knowing that he was inching closer to his own dismal fate. He writes:

"This brutal, unsightly, and cold disappearing, / Was so beyond what he'd conceived ever fearing."

Love, Dishonor is a book that is a joy to return to, no doubt with new tricks up its sleeve with each reading. Each word is perfectly placed and experienced. Where there is fun, there is substance.