I saw David Rakoff before I read a word by him. He was participating in a Symphony Space discussion with Sloane Crosley, and he read a passage from his third book, Half Empty, in which he marvels at the earlier inhabitants of the New World.
How does one take all this in and still think, Yes, I will go ever gaily forward. I will endure a pre-industrialized trek over hundreds of miles on a rocking, hard-slatted wagon bench, or in a saddle, or on foot. I will leave my children behind, or watch them succumb to scarlet fever, rickets, or infection.
He continues with this line of thought, going into detail about all the obstacles that lay ahead for these men and wondering how they could have thought such adventures were a good idea. I was listening, trying to process all the description coming at me from the podium when I heard this:
Ditto the conquistadors who, even fueled with the promise of gold, saw those jagged, stratosopheric peaks of the Andes and didn't just say, Oh fuck this, I'm going back to Spain.
I laughed. The entire audience laughed. I liked this guy. Later that night, as he and Crosley talked about their work and their writing process -- "Writing is like pulling teeth. From my dick," he famously said -- he went on a mini-rant about Virginia Thomas asking Anita Hill for an apology. The nerve! The chutzpah! He just had to talk about it for a minute.
I bought Half Empty, with its adorable cartoon-bunny cover and warning that it contained "no inspirational life lessons," not too long after that. When I finished that, I bought Don't Get Too Comfortable. When I finished that, I bought "Fraud." And when I finished that, I tweeted about how sad I was that there wasn't a next one. (Rakoff, by the way, would have been great on Twitter, and I checked occasionally to see if he had joined.)
One of the things I loved about his writing was how a single observation, a single sentence, would make me stop and recognize just how good it was. It would stick with me. Discussing protesters at the Gay Pride parade who hold signs saying, "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," he says, "Well, of course not Adam and Steve. Never Adam and Steve. It's Adam and Steven." When a woman suggests they could have "bitchy fun" together, he corrects her: "Oh no, I am a homosexual, but I'm not a bitch." He is sharing this information as context for a time when he did make a snide remark about someone, and he goes on: "It was important to me that this woman I had never met know this. I value kindness in myself and others. I try to remain super-vigilant about my targets and make extra sure that my sometimes barbed comments are deserved and in response to genuine malefaction."
And I appreciated this, too. Rakoff was honest and didn't sugarcoat his feelings about many things, but reading his writing, you knew he wasn't just being petty. You got the impression that he cared deeply about the world around him and the people in it. I thought about sending him a note on Facebook to tell him how much I enjoyed his writing, but I never did -- instead, I just felt envious when I saw mutual friends were connected to him.
When I learned of his death this morning on Twitter, I was crushed. My heart goes out to his family, but it's also extremely sad to realize that there will be no more of his brilliant writing. We will never get that fourth book, and that is truly our loss.
Update: Doubleday contacted us after this article was published to state that his fourth book, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die; Cherish, Perish, will be published next year. -- HuffPost Books Eds