Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish

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From the incomparable David Rakoff, a poignant, beautiful, witty, and wise novel in verse whose scope spans the twentieth century

Through his books and his radio essays for NPR's This American Life, David Rakoff has built a deserved reputation as one of the finest and funniest essayists of our time. Written with humor, sympathy, and tenderness, this intricately woven novel proves him to be the master of an altogether different art form.

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From the incomparable David Rakoff, a poignant, beautiful, witty, and wise novel in verse whose scope spans the twentieth century

Through his books and his radio essays for NPR's This American Life, David Rakoff has built a deserved reputation as one of the finest and funniest essayists of our time. Written with humor, sympathy, and tenderness, this intricately woven novel proves him to be the master of an altogether different art form.

LOVE, DISHONOR, MARRY, DIE, CHERISH, PERISH leaps cities and decades as Rakoff sings the song of an America whose freedoms can be intoxicating, or brutal. 

The characters' lives are linked to each other by acts of generosity or cruelty. A daughter of Irish slaughterhouse workers in early-twentieth-century Chicago faces a desperate choice; a hobo offers an unexpected refuge on the rails during the Great Depression; a vivacious aunt provides her clever nephew a path out of the crushed dream of postwar Southern California; an office girl endures the casually vicious sexism of 1950s Manhattan; the young man from Southern California revels in the electrifying sexual and artistic openness of 1960s San Francisco, then later tends to dying friends and lovers as the AIDS pandemic devastates the community he cherishes; a love triangle reveals the empty materialism of the Reagan years; a marriage crumbles under the distinction between self-actualization and humanity; as the new century opens, a man who has lost his way finds a measure of peace in a photograph he discovers in an old box—an image of pure and simple joy that unites the themes of this brilliantly conceived work.

Rakoff's insistence on beauty and the necessity of kindness in a selfish world raises the novel far above mere satire.  A critic once called Rakoff "magnificent," a word that perfectly describes this wonderful novel in verse.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Janet Maslin
The meter is so tricky and incongruous that it becomes this sly, bravura book's main witticism. In this 113-page, book-length narrative poem, a marvel of gamesmanship, Mr. Rakoff describes hardship, illness, death and depravity, knowing how ingeniously his book's style and substance would fight each other…Mr. Rakoff was far too young to have left behind this grace note or any other. But future readers can turn to this book to remember why he was so widely appreciated and is sorely missed.
The New York Times Book Review - Paul Rudnick
…extraordinary and deliriously entertaining…a heartfelt, charmingly profound American epic…For such a short work, Love feels full-scale and satisfying; what might have been a platter of tempting but trivial literary hors d'oeuvres becomes a feast…Love is a Wallenda-like feat; I held my breath, waiting to see if Rakoff could hold steady and make his way to safety, which he does in giddy, wistful triumph…He was a wonder, and Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is a gift.
Publishers Weekly
In this novel, written in verse, each brief chapter introduces a different character, living in a different era, sometimes in a different city. The effect is mesmerizing, as both the cadence of the couplets and the connections that link the characters become more established and familiar. Rakoff (Half-Empty), a frequent This American Life contributor and winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor, who died in the summer of 2012, combines his wit and his gravity for an unexpected blend of uncomfortable rhymes that build into recognizable stories. In one of the most intriguing chapters, Helen is a secretary seduced by her boss and then transferred once she needs an abortion: “She asked if he’d ever again say Hello,/ Fedora’d and coated and ready to go/ He took a step backward as if sensing danger/ And fixed her with eyes of a cold-blooded stranger.” Astounding, too, is how effectively an entire century is captured in these slices of daily life—how each era both defines and inspires those within its grasp. Agent: Irene Skolnick, Irene Skolnick Literary Agency. (July)
From the Publisher
"An extraordinarily and deliriously entertaining work....hearfelt, charmingly profound....[a] giddy, wistful triumph"
—Paul Rudnick, The New York Times Book Review

“Suffused with joyful invention. Readers may come to the book to pay their respects, but they will leave rejuvenated by the splendor of the warmth and wordplay. Composed a hand-span’s distance from death, it feels death-defying….irrepressibly funny, and even strangely uplifting, in jubilant verse….If this book must serve as his memorial, it’s at least as life-affirming as any that a writer has left behind
Wall Street Journal

"Sly, bravura....a marvel of gamesmanship, Mr. Rakoff describes hardship, illness, death and depravity, knowing how ingeniously his book’s style and substance would fight each for balancing truth telling and humor....future readers can turn to this book to remember why he was so widely appreciated and is sorely missed"
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“The literary rhythm captures the steady momentum of American progress….poignant….beautiful and melancholy….with a final image that made my eyes well up….funny and heartbreaking and, like Rakoff himself, not easy to forget”
Entertainment Weekly, A
“Ingenius, delicately haunting…..probing, poignant, and wickedly funny….illuminate[s] the many stages of life”
O Magazine

“It’s terrific: a sweeping narrative of the 20th century that encompasses personal tragedy, family secrets and broad social movements while going down as easy as a bite of crème brûleé”
—Gregory Cowles, The New York Times Book Review

“Reading the new novel in verse by David Rakoff, you can hear his voice again, wordy, so witty, a little worried, and always wise…..His mordant humor, his compassionate vision, his moral questioning, his sharp honesty, they’re all intimately wedded to the meter and the zestful diction of the book…..But the new direction he takes in “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish” brings out the best in him, too, as he fits his voice into a tighter form without ever becoming a slave to that form. He is as vital, as blackly comic, as bursting forth with detail, as vernacular, and as poignant in metered verse as he is in his effortlessly long prose sentences. Each couplet here equally serves the structural rules, the story, and Rakoff’s matchless sensibility….The narrative is ambitious and has sweep…Agile, vivid, and entertaining”
Boston Globe

“Even at six vivid verbs, the title doesn’t do justice to the breadth of this short, acrid, elusive, entrancing book.”

"Inspired...accessible, delightful....powerful.... alluringly designed by Chip Kidd and illustrated by the cartoonist Seth, is filled with the sly, sharp social commentary that made Rakoff such a favorite....What shines through in this novel, even more than in his nonfiction, is a piercing, wistful appreciation for life, love and art....deserves to become a classic.....a rare bird: moving, amusing, lilting, crushing."
—Heller McAlpin, NPR

“I just marveled at his words….What he’s created in this book is Seussian”
—Ira Glass, in an interview with O Magazine

“Beautiful and heartbreaking....delightful.... hilarious and lewd and shot through with a longing for life”
—New York Times

“A novel in rhyming couplets narrated in iambic tetrameter? Why not?... Along the way, you can have a lot of fun, no matter how serious the subject — family, sometimes alienating, sometimes consoling — because of the rhymes. Rakoff makes such pairings as virago and Chicago, ceases and paresis, skittish and Yiddish, antelope and envelope, horas and Torahs, Alzheimer's and climbers, for 100 cleverly rendered and entertaining pages.”
—Alan Cheuse,

"[A] tour de force novel-in-verse....It is hard not to feel celebratory over its heart-singing smarts, its existence as a fist raised against a life ending. What melancholia is there is confined to its characters — it’s a triumphant, moving work of true craft and wit."
Austin American-Statesman

"Truly singular....There is so much bound up in the novel's singsong verse: stories about AIDS and Alzheimer's, altruism, art, lives linked together by buried incidents that spring up again to bear unexpected fruit."
—Ira Glass, The Atlantic

“Rakoff marries deft, humane observation with jauntily tripping verse structure — in places, you'll find yourself thinking of Dr. Seuss — to create a series of jewel-toned interlocking miniatures.”— 

“[A] marvelously barbed novel in verse.”
–Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair’s “Hot Type”
"Mesmerizing....Combines his wit and his gravity....Astounding"
Publishers Weekly

"A fitting memorial to a humorist whose embrace of life encompassed its dark side....[the book] retains a spirit of sweetness and light, even as mortality and inhumanity provide a subtext.....Strong work. It deepens the impact that this was the last book completed by the author."
Kirkus Reviews

Library Journal
Rakoff is well known for his humorous essays (Fraud; Don't Get Too Comfortable; Half Empty) and appearances on the radio program This American Life. In his newest book, a novel in verse, Rakoff displays great facility with rhyme and meter without losing any of his signature droll sense of humor. The book collects stories of characters and place thematically woven and punctuated by illustrations; they are biting (of course!) and mostly light, with a striking gentleness in the narrator's voice. In one story, a man sits with his aging mother, who doesn't recognize him: "He'd thought that her being alive would defray/ His sadness, but all this goodbye without going away/ This brutal, unsightly, and cold disappearing/ Was so beyond what he'd conceived ever fearing;/ A stupid, but not less dispiriting coda/ To be slapped by his mother, who wanted his soda." In another, a runaway learns that the cruel world contains kindnesses. And those are just two! VERDICT Verse seems the perfect style for the trifecta of Rakoff's humor, intelligence, and humanity. Readers who prefer their prose without stanzas may want to experiment by starting here. [See Prepub Alert, 1/25/13.]—Stephen Morrow, Hilliard, OH
Kirkus Reviews
This short novel of rhyming verse might be better read aloud, if only the author were still alive to read it. The late essayist for NPR's This American Life, Rakoff (Half Empty, 2010, etc.) was accustomed to writing for the ear, but never has his writing seemed more designed to be heard than here. The posthumous publication provides a fitting memorial to a humorist whose embrace of life encompassed its dark side and who died of cancer in 2012 at age 47. Written in anapestic tetrameter--most familiar from " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and most commonly associated with light comedy--this novel of interlocking stories nevertheless deals with rape, abortion, adultery, homophobia, AIDS, dementia and death. It's like a child's bedtime story that you would never read to children, yet it retains a spirit of sweetness and light, even as mortality and inhumanity provide a subtext to the singsong. "If it weren't so tragic, it could have been farce," he writes of an early blooming 12-year-old girl who attracts plenty of unwanted attention, including that of her brutish stepfather, and then finds herself blamed before escaping to something of a happy ending. The bittersweet center of the novel is a young boy who discovers both his artistic talent and his homosexuality, lives a life that is both rich and short, and dies just a little younger than the author did. Some of the rhymes read like doggerel ("crime it...climate," "Naugahyde...raw inside") and some of the laughs seem a little forced, but the author brings a light touch to deadly serious material, finding at least a glimmer of redemption for most of his characters. Strong work. It deepens the impact that this was the last book completed by the author.
The Barnes & Noble Review

In a 2011 interview with Julie Klausner, writer David Rakoff sang the praises of stoicism. When Rakoff died in August 2012 of cancer at age forty-seven, Klausner called Rakoff "a New York saint." Some of the city's other departed artists resemble that remark: Edith Wharton, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Frederick Law Olmsted. Like the Toronto native Rakoff, each made New York better by gracing it with a gimlet eye. But if Rakoff was a saint, he taught us that even we stoics are deserving of one.

Stoicism is often narrowly defined as indifference to joy and woe alike. The title of Rakoff's 2011 essay collection, Half Empty, rather depicts an inner peace with the reality that we all endure hardship and sadness, as well as a self-aware knowledge of pain and pleasure as equally transient. Good Grief, if you will. Rakoff was not apathetic, but reasoned. He knew what Solomon and Lincoln alike knew of all sensations, from rapture to cancer: this too shall pass.

Rakoff finished his fourth book, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish mere weeks before dying. His absence is a loss to all who admired his This American Life radio monologues, piercing prose, and off-Broadway collaborations with David and Amy Sedaris (surreal slices of humanity which reminded Manhattan that it is an island of lost toys, built and sustained by eccentrics). But Rakoff's voice is already proving durable — consider his elegant depiction of the writing life, described with zero resentment or hand-wringing as the "precise opposite of hanging out; a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating oneself long enough to push something out."

Perish is a novel in verse: anapestic tetrameter to be exact. You've heard this rhythm in such children's classics as Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," Dr. Seuss' Yertle the Turtle, and Eminem's "The Way I Am." The allure of an anapestic work is in its music: Perish would be but a quaint experiment if one couldn't buy into its rhymes and verse. Fortunately, this is a ballad in which cold milk swirls "like taffeta silk." Rakoff threads "virago" to "Chicago," "huge, he" to "Mount Fuji," "adolescence" to "phosphorescence." "Predicaments" precede "ligaments" as swiftly as "stoic" foregoes "heroic." He delights in maneuvering the meter in knowing twists: "O, just like the song says, my heart's San Francisco! / (Suck on that dear, while I work out where this goes...)."

I won't spoil the best lines, except to say that the author's early linking of "erotic" and "despotic" is the most succinct summation of his driving forces. Perish's linked stories each find a character in pursuit of affection, and thus vulnerable to love's piercing slings and arrows. Faced with abandonment, cruelty, prejudice, humiliation, and violence — to say nothing of the horror of living in one's own skin, these modest heroes ? the stoics usually peppered into romantic comedies as the sassy sidekicks ? shine valiantly upon finding companionship, the chutzpah needed to embrace their beautiful weirdness, or (best of all) an opportunity to be selflessly kind.

Such writing was on the wall in Half Empty, where Rakoff conceded that "...the thrill of the most brilliantly quicksilver aperçu is no match for the self-interested high I get from having done someone a good turn. You'd think I'd do more good turns as a result, but there you go." Perish bares traces of Rakoff's own biography, namely his days as a Japanese translator and later a New York secretary. At the book's center is Clifford, a young artist who learns both to embrace his homosexuality and to use humor as a shield and elixir.

While Rakoff's depiction of one of Perish's characters as "a truth-telling wag: witty, gin-dry, and droll" might serve to describe his own style, Perish triumphs on the strength of its mercies. Rakoff throws both affection and grenades at his characters, salving and salting their wounds. He forgives their vices, while obeying Kurt Vonnegut's commandment that a writer must "make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of." The gradually revealed familial entanglements of Rakoff's lead characters are slow- burning, their ancestry a mystery decoded over the full twentieth century, when "the years concertina'd."

Lord Byron's 1815 poem "The Destruction of Sennacherib," in which Assyria's warrior king discovers that his soldiers have died before having the chance to seize Jerusalem, employs the same anapestic tetrameter Rakoff took up:

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.
It's a fitting emblem for a writer who dies young, instrument still in hand, silenced permanently. But its last note echoes proudly. In Perish, Rakoff pulled off that rarest of authorial feats: his last book is his best.

Nick Curley is an editor of the Barnes & Noble Review.

Reviewer: Nick Curley

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385535212
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/16/2013
  • Pages: 128
  • Sales rank: 211,417
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

David Rakoff

David Rakoff was the New York Times bestselling author of the books Fraud, Don't Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty. A two-time recipient of the Lambda Literary Award and winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor, he was a regular contributor to This American Life. He died in August 2012 at the age of forty-seven, shortly after finishing this book.

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Read an Excerpt

Helen harbors the hope that the passing five years
Have made folks forget both the vomit and tears
And throwing of glassware and drunken oration,
That half-hour tirade of recrimination
Where, feeling misused, she had got pretty plastered,
And named His name publicly, called him a bastard.
The details are fuzzy, though others have told her
She insulted this one and cried on that shoulder,
Then lurched ’round the ballroom, all pitching and weaving
And ended the night in the ladies’ lounge, heaving.
How had it begun, before things all turned rotten?
She can pinpoint the day, she has never forgotten
How he came to her desk and leaned over her chair
To look at some papers, and then smelled her hair.
“Gardenias,” he’d said, his voice sultry and lazy
And hot on her ear, Helen felt she’d gone crazy.
“A fragrance so heady it borders on sickly,”
He’d purred at her neck and then just as quickly
Was back to all business, demanding she call
Some client, as if he’d said nothing at all.
She was certainly never an expert at men,
But an inkling was twinkling, especially when
The next day he all but confirmed Helen’s hunch.
When he leaned from his office and asked her to lunch.
Their talk was all awkward and formal to start
He said that he found her efficient and smart.
She thanked him, then stopped, she was quite at a loss.

She’d never before really talked to her boss.
They each had martinis, which helped turn things mellow,
He asked where she lived, and if she had a fellow.
He reached for her hand and asked, “Will you allow
An old man to wonder who’s kissing you now?”
It was close and convenient, his spare midtown rental.
And after, more drinks at a bar near Grand Central
To sit once again in uncomfortable silence
Like two guilty parties to some kind of violence.
They sipped among other oblivion seekers,
While June Christy sang from the bar’s tinny speakers.
He settled the bill and they got to their feet,
And emerged from the afternoon hush to the street.
They walked arm in arm in some crude imitation
Of other real couples en route to the station.
Such leisurely strolling, although it’s grown late
Against her best judgment it feels like a date.
His booze-cloud blown over, now happy, near beaming
He stops at a window of cutlery, gleaming,
He points out the wares, taking note of a set that
He likes best of all, then he says, “We should get that.”
She knows it’s a joke, all this idle house-playing
But briefly she hopes that he means what he’s saying.
Her presence, she thinks, is what’s rendered him gladder
But really it’s just that he aimed for, and had her.
The hideous reason behind his new glow is
What Helen—and many just like her—don’t know is

That men’s moods turn light and their spirits expand,
The moment they sense an escape is at hand.
He patted her cheek as he said, “I’m replenished,”
Then off through the crowd for the next train to Greenwich.
Helen pictured his house with its broad flagstone path.
The windows lit up, a child fresh from the bath,
And wondered if she might just smell on his skin,
The coppery scent of their afternoon sin.
At her desk the next Monday it was business as always.
There were no words exchanged, not a glance in the hallways.
With relief, Helen thought, Well that’s that. Nevermore.
’Til Friday (again) at his pied-à-terre door.
And Friday thereafter, and each after that
For close to two years, ’til their actions begat
What such actions are wont to when caution’s ignored.
The cure was a thing she could scarcely afford.
They talked in his office behind the closed door.
(She could tell from his face that he’d been there before.)
In the envelope left the next day on her desk,
Was two hundred cash and a downtown address.
She’d never had visions of roses or cupids,
 From the beginning she wasn’t that stupid.
What you don’t hope for can’t turn ’round to hurt you.
 Besides, she had long before given her virtue.

There hadn’t been untoward coaxing or urging
This wasn’t The Ogre Defiling The Virgin
He’s older than she, but they’d both played the game
Of never once speaking the other one’s name.
Their mutual distance a plan jointly hatched
To keep things unserious, flip, and detached.
It was—truth be told, when she coolly reflected—
Not all that much different from what she’d expected.
Expected, she thought, and it sounded absurd.
How long had it been since she’d uttered that word?
And yet there were moments—unbarred, undefended—
When Helen concocted, cooked up, and pretended
She had all the trappings that go with the life of
The thoroughly satisfied, marrified wife of
A man who might keep her, despite the new battle
That said wives were really no better than chattel,
The difference too scant between “bridal” and “bridle”
And girls who’d had everything, now suicidal,
Finally finding their voices to speak
Of their feminine fetters, this loathsome mystique;
This problem that theretofore hadn’t a name
And still, Helen couldn’t resist, just the same,
To wonder, how might such a cared-for existence
Feel after decades of hard-won subsistence.
A mistress of manor, so calm, so serene
To know that there nowhere was any vitrine
Whose silvery wares would be ever denied her.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 8 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    I have long been a fan of David Rakoff's work on NPR. This novel

    I have long been a fan of David Rakoff's work on NPR. This novel shows off even greater writing ability. The story spans decades with characters coming into and out of each other's lives. There is a section on AIDs that is heartbreaking. I found the book fascinating and well written.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2013

    This is the definition of a swan song. That unmistakable Rakoff

    This is the definition of a swan song. That unmistakable Rakoff voice (whether written or spoken) nearly sings these verses, his last writing on earth. Hearing this Seussian rhyme, I suddenly realized what has bugged me about Rakoff all these years - he was born to narrate Seuss. And now he takes the Seussian rhyme to places it was meant to be - sarcasm, cynicism, with compassion and a calm urgency - that Seuss did not take it. Reading this book, or hearing it read by Rakoff himself, is a joyous farewell to a unique and loving writer.
    You must have this book in your library. Lend it out, but demand that it be read and heard and cared for, then returned to you, because you will need it again. Rakoff should not be able to disappear from your life - not that easily.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2013

    We miss you David

    Can't wait to read your swan song

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 23, 2013

    Not for me! Guess I'm not poetic enough.

    Not for me! Guess I'm not poetic enough.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2013

    Highly Recommended

    This is just amazing. I'm a David Rakoff fan but thought this might be a bit "twee" and gimmicky. It's just delightful. Sorry you are no longer with us, my friend.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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    Posted August 22, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted January 10, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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