David Rakoff’s Last Words

David Rakoff. (Getty Images)

David Rakoff. (Getty Images)

It was exactly the kind of thing you’d imagine David Rakoff, the sweet but kvetchy essayist who died last year, rolling his eyes at.

Last week, 62 readers convened on the fourth floor of the Union Square Barnes & Noble to commemorate the posthumous publication of Mr. Rakoff’s novel in verse, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish.

Yet perhaps in the spirit of the Canadian-born essayist, who was 47 when he succumbed to cancer last August, the evening was remarkably touching without slipping into overt sentimentality—a signature trait of Mr. Rakoff’s work.

“No need for a speech about David, as all of you being here says it all,” the writer Steven Sorrentino bluntly told a crowded room by way of introduction.

And so, over a period of three hours, an assembly line of readers—including Augusten Burroughs, Simon Doonan, Ira Glass and Julie Klausner—worked its way through Mr. Rakoff’s short but affecting book, which he finished only five weeks before he died.

To avoid interrupting the flow of the text, no introductions were made and the audience was instructed to refrain from clapping until the end of the reading.

Which might have made for a solemn affair. But Love is too entertaining for that to have been a problem. Told in anapestic tetrameter, the book is an episodic collection of stories—ribald, melancholic, funny, disturbing snapshots of American life—that stretch through most of the 20th century and into the 21st. The book is composed of rhyming couplets, though the stories never feel glib or childish as a result.

rakoff cover

Some readers chose to accentuate the waltz-like feel of Mr. Rakoff’s lines while others took a freer approach with the rhythm. Mr. Burroughs delivered his passage, about a gay man named Clifford reveling in San Francisco’s Castro district in the 1970s, with gusto. And Mr. Rakoff’s father, Vivian, was an engaging interpreter of his son’s work. (Mr. Rakoff’s brother and sister, Simon and Ruth, also read.)

Toward the end of the evening, Mr. Glass, the host of This American Life, to which Mr. Rakoff was a frequent contributor, took to the podium. He read one stanza—once again about Clifford, who is now dying of AIDS—and then stopped abruptly.

“Here’s David reading,” Mr. Glass said.

Mr. Rakoff’s voice was projected through the speakers in the room as Clifford’s tale unfolded:

The facts were now harder, reality colder
His parasol no match for that falling boulder.
And so the concern with the trivial issues:
Slippers nearby and the proximate tissues
He thought of those two things in life that don’t vary
(Well, thought only glancingly; more was too scary)
Inevitable, why even bother to test it,
He’d paid all his taxes, so that left … you guessed it.

The recording, which is part of the audiobook, edited by Mr. Glass, was made in the last week of July last summer, about two weeks before Mr. Rakoff died; his voice is dry and frail and wheezy and hard to listen to.

Mr. Glass, clearly moved, looked out into the room and placed his hand on his heart, choking up. When the recording had stopped, those in the crowd, despite having been told otherwise, began to clap.