David Rakoff, the popular writer and radio personality, died yesterday of cancer, age 47. He was a frequent contributor to the radio show This American Life, with which he had been involved since its inception, as well as an award-winning essayist.
Last year, he won the highly acclaimed Thurber Prize for American Humor for his final essay collection, "Half Empty." His first two books of essays, "Fraud" and "Don't Get Too Comfortable", won the Humor category of the Lambda Literary Awards celebrating excellence in LGBT literature.
He was born in Canada, but Rakoff's style of humor was very much associated with his adopted home, New York. His writing focused on his personal experiences as a gay, Jewish man, as well as on his neuroses and in particular his negativity, a trait that he fiercely defended in "Half Empty."
David Rakoff was friends with the writers Amy and David Sedaris. The latter described Rakoff's work as "truly witty, almost in a lost, old-fashioned way."
His three essay collections were published over 11 years, a relatively low level of output that the writer Edward Champion, who met Rakoff several times, put down to "the high neuroses David brought to the writing process."
He also acted in Off-Broadway plays and movies. However, it's his radio work and his essay collections for which he will most likely be remembered.
David Rakoff was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in 2010. He had already beaten cancer once, aged 22, when he had had a form of lymphatic cancer. While undergoing chemotherapy for the tumor, he went on The Daily Show, where he told Jon Stewart, "The will to keep on going is incredibly strong... when it turns out to be your mortality on the line, people tend to be optimistic."
Update: According to reports, This American Life is preparing a special program dedicated to Rakoff's work, to air next week.
Update 2: The National Post quotes Rakoff's long-time editor Bill Thomas in saying that Rakoff had submitted a finished novel, to be published in the fall. "The book is a novel, in verse, called 'Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die; Cherish, Perish.' I had my doubts about the project when he proposed it, but I was wrong. It is written with humor and sympathy and tenderness, and proves him to be the master of an altogether different art form." A story co-written by Rakoff, about a doctor who only writes in rhyme, was aired last week on This American Life.
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