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.