From the Publisher
"Combining journalistic tenacity, literary smarts, and a talent for gut-busting one-liners, Rakoff reports on his wilted salad days . . . His blend of withering wit and self-effacing humor makes these essays soar." –Entertainment Weekly
"Rakoff possesses a sociologist's eye for places where today’s consoling myths reside."
–New York Times
"David Rakoff’s Fraud showcases his rapier wit, slashing in all directions with slice-of-life insights and cutting remarks, sometimes nicking himself with self-deprecation in his dexterous duello with the American experience." –Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Rakoff likes to paint himself as urbane to a fault, an outsider anywhere unpaved. But then, in the woods or on a mountaintop, he reveals himself, despite his searing and hilarious observations, to be a completely unrelenting romantic."
–Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
"David Rakoff's hilarious, bittersweet stories are epic struggles–between smoky bars and the great outdoors, management and labor, Santa Claus and Sigmund Freud, New York versus everywhere else, and, not least, neighbor-to-the-North against South. Rakoff is such an American original it turns out he’s Canadian. Vive the brain drain!"
-Sarah Vowell, author of Take the Cannoli
In these remarkable essays, many of which originated as segments for PRI's This American Life, Rackoff shares some of the sordid stories from his life thus far, including events as varied as his early experiences in a camp for young bourgeoisie Marxists and a Buddhist retreat weekend in the Hudson Valley led by "Rinpoche" Steven Seagal -- that's right, the actor. Whether he is drinking with his publishing pals or climbing a 3,000-foot mountain as a reporter on assignment, the fuse that drives through each of these stories is Rackoff's keen B.S. detector -- tuned in equally to those he's surrounded by and to himself. "The central drama in my life is about being a fraud," writes Rackoff in the buoyant lead story, "In New England, Everyone Calls You Dave." Believing this about himself, he earnestly sets out to unmask frauds everywhere, only to unearth some not-so-desirable aspects of his own character and certain truths about the world, with a wholly unique and profound -- not to mention hilarious -- sensibility.
An alumnus of PRI's This American Life, Rakoff has earned a place among the vanguard of New York's young and witty social commentators, and his first book of essays demonstrates a voice as distinctive and acerbic as that of his friend, David Sedaris. But unlike Sedaris, whose outlook is so hilariously incisive you almost forget about its underlying nihilism, Rakoff displays an off-kilter optimism no matter where he finds himself. Even easy targets like actor Steven Seagalan esteemed guest instructor at a New Age weekend retreat that the author attends, where he is addressed as Rinpoche, Tibetan for "Precious Jewel"get a fair shake. Rakoff doesn't play the unattached outsider, and the tone of these essays tends to fall somewhere between self-deprecation and rueful apology, with the author himself enduring the harshest criticism (usually for the trespass of getting mixed up in ridiculous situations). Through Rakoff's witty and perceptive lens, people's ugliest qualities, whether ineffectuality or hypocrisy, seem somehow less troubling.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A talented new humorist springs onto the scene: Rakoff has a rapier wit, slashing in all directions with slice-of-life insights and cutting remarks, sometimes nicking himself with self-deprecation in his dexterous duello with the American experience. Rakoff is a public radio personality, and his first collection contains his material from public radio's This American Life and from Outside and Salon, as well as a few new pieces. Assigned to visit a New Age retreat for a Buddhism workshop led by Steven Seagal, to look for elves in Iceland, to attend the Aspen Comedy Festival and to train at a wilderness survival camp, Rakoff endures urban dweller misadventures with a spin that occasionally remind one of Fran Lebowitz, such as during his hike up a New Hampshire mountain: "If only the mist would part to reveal a beautiful, beautiful parking lot, I will get through this." Outstanding is "Lush Life," a look at the delusions and despair of low-paid NYC editorial assistants, "complicit believers in the mythic glamour of a literary New York" yet forced to subsist on "salmonella-friendly" free snacks in "unhappening bars" where they can avoid former classmates with six-figure incomes. Rakoff can be as funny as Dave Barry or George Carlin, but he adds a touch of pathos, peeling away poignant layers unexplored by other humor writers. The author's woodcut illustrations are barely adequate, since the book cries out for Ralph Steadman art. The book cries out, period. (May 15) Forecast: With national print advertising and a national author tour in the offing, plus his radio exposure, Rakoff will quickly find his readership and they him. The crude pink marker scrawl of the title will make the book an eye-catching item in store displays. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Fifteen disparate personal essays running from wisecracking self-deprecation to a misplaced, though welcome, earnestness from yet another young, sardonic NPR graduate. Rakoff may wish to steal the mantle from fellow ironist David Sedaris but in his intermittent humor barely manages to surpass Sarah Vowell, both of whom pop up in uncredited cameos here. His studied, fish-out-of-water neurosis emerges early in the collection with "In New England Everyone Calls You Dave," as he's forced (on assignment, natch) to leave his Manhattan apartment and accompany a couple of salt-of-the-earth types up a mountain. The author's newfound bumpkin buddies are heroically patient with him as he ponders how to survive the experience with only one Xanax. On a kibbutz ("Rise, Ye Wretched of the Earth"), Rakoff moans that "the sun is just always shining" and finds that he's unsuited to outside work. In "Christmas Freud," he secures himself a spot as the lone live-action figure in a Christmas department-store-window pastiche as what one would imagine is the ultimate for Rakoff: excruciatingly self-conscious and the center of attention all at once. And those are the funny pieces. In "I'll Take the Low Road," Rakoff goes to deepest, mythic Scotland, where he makes the shocking discovery that the culture war between Loch Ness believers and Loch Ness infidels is, well, nonexistent. Even less a story is "Hidden People," a meandering, dull investigation of the storied elfin people of Iceland. Only when he insinuates himself into other people's lives and fades from focus do Rakoff's observations take on some measure of poignancy. The finest entry here-"We Call It Australia"-follows a group of Austrianteachingrecruits into the New York City school system and manages to lampoon Americans and poke holes in American stereotypes at the same time. Rakoff has a charming point of view and a sure-footed voice, so long as he's not kvetching and kvelling. But mostly he is. Cloying, overlong diversions best suited for 15 minutes of public radio. Nothing more.
Read an Excerpt
Erla Steffansdottir makes her miving as a piano teacher, but is more widely known as one of Iceland's most noted Elf communicators. Her maps of Hidden People sites are on sale in tourist shops all around Iceland.She claims she has been seeing elves and Hidden People her whole life. I have been led to believe that my chances of meeting Erla would be slim to none, that she is difficult, that she will not be helpful, that she traffics in arbitrary rivalries in the Elf-spotting community.
I'm inclined to believe the rumors after my initial encounter when I first call to set up the interview. Erla actually seems to be sobbing on the other end of the phone, all the while talking to me. Then again, in her defense, who actually picks up the phone in the middle of a crying jag? Besides, without having to push, she tells me to come the next day at four o'clock.
I was expecting a wild hair, clanking jewelry, a tatterdemalion velvet cape from whose folds wafted the scent of incense, a house full of candles, dream catchers, cats, and bad art. Instead, I found a friendly if somewhat shy woman in her forties living in a lovely apartment on the top floor of a Reykjavik townhouse with a bay window. Aside from a tiny elf figure made of three painted stones, piled up snowman style outside her front door, Erla's house is decorated in the tasteful, middle class aesthetic one might expect of a piano teacher: landscape paintings, old furniture. The place is warm and cozy on a particularly blustering, windy day.
Erla's friend Bjork is there to translate, although Erla's English is sufficient to slap me down at our rather awkward beginning. I ask when she first realized she could see Hidden People. "This is very stupid to ask when I see. When I was born. Like that one right there." she says, indicating a place on the coffee table beside a Danish modern glass ashtray. She then catches herself. "Oh that's right. You can't see it." she shakes her head slightly, amused at her forgetfulness that others do not possess her gift. It's a somewhat disingenuous moment, like when your friend, newly back from a semester in Paris, says to you, "It's like, uhm, oh I forget the English word, how you say....fromage?"
Apparently the coffee table in front of me is a veritable marketplace of elves milling about, many of them in separate dimensions and oblivious to one another. Bjork takes over, essentially ferrying me through this gnomish cocktail party:
"One sits there, two are walking over here, one sits there. When she plays music they come. It attracts them."
I am suddenly overcome with a completely inappropriate urge: the barely suppressed impulse to slam my hand down on the coffee table really, really hard, right where she's pointing.
Apparently the elves on the table are in too remote a dimension, and are too small to talk to. Conveniently, every home also comes equipped with a House Elf, about the size of the average three-year-old, with whom one can communicate. "Every home?" I ask.
"Yes you have one in your house in New York, too." Bjork assures me.
If only my House Elf, sick and tired of my skepticism, was taking pains to prove his existence once and for all by cleaning my apartment for me at that very moment, I joke. Leadest of balloons.
But Bjork points out that house elves are a privilege, not a right. When the energy of a given house gets too negative, she says, when there is drinking or fighting, the elves will leave. Not terribly surprisingly, mysticism, New Age philosophy, Recovery-speak, and elves are conflated as one. Erla says that elves are a manifestation of nature, they are inherently good; without them we would choke on our own pollution. There is almost no more urban point of view of nature than this pastoral, idyllic one: Humankind bad, Nature good. As in, drinking and fighting bad, elves and flowers good. But it's a false dichotomy. After all, following this logic, Sistine Chapel bad, Ebola virus good?