[30 August 2005]
In Don’t Get Too Comfortable, a loosely themed collection of essays by regular This American Life and New York Times Magazine contributor David Rakoff, the trappings of the urban upper class are taken on with style apropos of the subject. I can’t imagine reading Rakoff’s writing without having first heard him on This American Life as every essay rings in my head with his trademark curt, but pristine bell, of a voice and stoic delivery befitting a fine butler. Everything he reads on air, from essays about playing Freud in a downtown department store window to his travails with Hodgkin’s Disease, are delivered in the same tone, a dignified but sardonic drawl that he manages to translate immaculately to print.
I must acknowledge my own biases towards Rakoff. He has the very pedigree that a white-trash girl from suburban California, like myself, can only dream of. He’s a gay Jewish Canadian. Swoon! If only I could be one of those things, I would never get over my own fantastic exoticism. The first time I set foot in a gay bar, I loudly pronounced for all to hear, “Sing out Louise!” and was met with cold stares. While living in London, I tried to convince everyone I met that I wasn’t the devil in red, white and blue. “I’m all about maple syrup,” I would announce. No one believed me. I tried desperately to find a nice Jewish man to marry a little goy like me, but instead my heart guided me to another gentile. Since I couldn’t have a bottle dance at my wedding, I eloped in protest. In short, David Rakoff is everything I ever wanted to be and his writing plays to my wannabe Jewish-Canadian-male homosexual within.
The opening essay follows Rakoff through the process of becoming a naturalized American entitled “Love it or Leave it” and endearingly subtitled, “Okay by Me in Ame-ri-ca!” It’s the only essay in Don’t Get Too Comfortable ostensibly about Rakoff, making this collection different from his previous release, Fraud, which was comprised of largely autobiographical stories of the author as a fish out of water. He is primarily driven to become an American by his great love: New York City, where he has been residing for 22 years. After taking great pleasure in filling out the forms, creating “a document of such surpassing beauty, it is virtually scented,” and a delay ascribed to a lack of willingness to go to war for the United States, he eventually submits and becomes a naturalized American. The essay captures my own ambivalence about American citizenship (we’re free… to hate our government) and leads nicely into the remainder of the book ripping apart America’s quirky sense of privilege.
In short order Rakoff skewers foodies during a trip to, what I presume is Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, though the restaurant is not explicitly named. The superior enjoyment of carefully grown and prepared food is described as, “celebrat[ing] not only our small part in this incremental triumph over factory farming that just being here this evening represents but also our elevated capacities.” He follows up the lofty experience of being one of the last few to ride the Concorde, with a trip on Hooters Air, describing the pre-flight Hooters girls as, “Olympic athletes representing the tackiest country on earth.”
We then follow Rakoff to Belize to witness a shoot for a Latin American Playboy TV show at an extreme luxury hotel located a short boat ride from a hurricane wracked “bog of muddy destitution.” He’s not at ease with the pampering, claiming he hasn’t “put in anything resembling an honest day’s work in years so I am uncomfortable, to say the least, with being given a servant.” The experience contrasts well with his turn as an “ambassador” for the pool at a swank Miami Beach hotel, where he is demonstrably more comfortable being on the other side of service.
A few essays follow that don’t fit the upper-class theme, but are enjoyable tributes to New York nonetheless. Rakoff endures a late urban night scavenger hunt and writes memorably of the climate in the city after September 11, saying of a woman that inexplicably refused his offer to pay to use her cell phone: “Oddly enough, I found this display of cuntiness not 24 hours after tragedy bracingly restorative.” A foray into the crowd of window-steaming extras on Good Morning America emerges as a low-point of the collection, not because of the writing, but the subject matter is too uninteresting for even Rakoff to fashion a gripping story.
In the book’s high point, “Beat Me Daddy,” Rakoff visits with the Log Cabin Republicans in a desperate attempt to understand why any gay man would be a republican. The LCR are described as a “cow helpfully outlining its tastiest cuts on its side with chalk while happily pouring the A-1 sauce over its own head.” Throughout the piece Rakoff labors to be evenhanded in his depiction, but ultimately cannot. Saying of the LCR’s slogan “Inclusion Wins,” “to be perfectly schoolyard about it… inclusion is for fags.” Rakoff cannot forgive his fellow gay men for abandoning the other issues, besides homosexuality, that define the left, but his thoughtful attempts to understand the LCR stance make it a great treatment of gay politics.
Perhaps not all readers are as predestined to gobble up Rakoff’s every word as myself, but it’s a thoughtful collection with sometimes stunningly tight writing. It’s a textbook on the perfect magazine-style essay: a sharp and distinct voice tempered with humor and unequivocally astute observations about culture. If were to die suddenly while the reading of this book were in my recent memory, I would probably beg to be reincarnated as a bird so that I could eat seed out of Rakoff’s hand. I can’t write a more loving review than that. Please enjoy the master of gay, Jewish, former-Canadian snark.