I really have to stop reading books by and about dead young people. It’s too depressing.
Or maybe not. According to the premise of David Rakoff’s last book, a collection of essays titled Half Empty, the down side has its up side. To be honest, this is a truism that I have carried in my bones, or perhaps my DNA, my whole life. Yet only after reading the first essay in the book, “The Bleak Shall Inherit,” could I put a name to this quirk of my personality: defensive pessimism. The defensive pessimist assumes disaster in all instances, but unlike the dispositional pessimist – think of Eeyore – the defensive pessimist uses this assessment to take action, therefore generally avoiding disaster and ending up, if not happy, then satisfied. I would add another neat side effect: if it is a disaster, the dispositional pessimist also tends to be satisfied, since his expectations were fulfilled.
My father is perhaps the most perfect case-study of the defensive pessimist on earth, and suffice it to say I have learned from the master. A few years ago my husband had a hernia operation, and while sitting with him before he was taken to surgery, chatting and laughing, I suddenly realized that he was not worried about the fact that someone was about to sedate him and cut into his flesh with a sharp knife. I asked him if he were nervous, and he said no. Then I got mad. To me, a lack of anxiety at a moment when it is obvious that something might go very, very wrong represents an insufferable naiveté. The surgeon walked in. Glancing at us, he asked, “What’s wrong?” “I think he’s insufficiently anxious about his surgery,” I said. “I’m not getting into this,” the surgeon said, and walked out.
So you see that I am constitutionally perfectly suited to love a book like Half Empty, and I did. Aside from my identification with the topic, David Rakoff’s essays are wonderful, even when they are not being read by him in his slightly nasal Jewish-Canadian-New York voice. The guy can turn a phrase like no other – to wit, his description of an older woman’s laugh as “the sound of rocks in a blender, a granite smoothie,” or a parenthetical observation about Brigham Young’s requirement that the streets of Salt Lake City be 132 feet wide: “Is this bit of hypertrophic urban planning just a standard issue paleo-Trumpism? One of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Nineteenth-Century Men with Big Ideas?” As always, Rakoff’s particularly incisive, slightly caustic brand of humor had me giggling and chuckling to myself, stopping to read the funniest bits aloud to my husband.
But the humor, though biting, is rarely at anyone else’s expense. The thing I appreciate most about David Rakoff’s work, and this book is no exception, is its deep, almost reverent sincerity. “The Satisfying Crunch of Dreams Underfoot,” which is largely an account of Rakoff’s own struggles to become a writer and take the risks necessary for creative production, is also a kind of extended confession and penance, it seemed to me, for saying something about another writer that he describes as “the only person in my entire life about whom I’ve said something purposely, gratuitously injurious and deeply unkind.” The way we know what a mensch David Rakoff was (aside from the many, many eulogistic essays on his menschiness that appeared in print after his death) is that the thing he said, the thing it seems like he wrote this whole essay to atone for, isn’t even that bad. I’m pretty sure I’ve said worse things in my sleep.
I like to think that this menschy quality is related to another of the aspects of Rakoff’s writing that I love: his unapologetic Jewishness, and his dedication to the most expansive and generous interpretation of Jewish identity. Here, an essay-length meditation on the deliciousness of pork and its particular appeal to Jews becomes a sweet homage to the multiplicity of modern Jewish life (something I have written about on this very blog). His ode to bacon becomes a kind of pride parade for Jews. When he eats bacon, he writes, “It is this that I taste: the fact that I do not have to be ‘on the bus.’ I can, in fact, stand by the side of the road with a sign that says DOWN WITH BUSES! – or, more authentically phrased: BUSES? FEH! – and still be able to claim full and proud membership. Which I do, emphatically.” This is everything that is great about modern Jewish life in a nutshell – a funny, emotionally honest nutshell. And that is David Rakoff’s genius.
Despite the charm and brilliance of these little literary gems, almost all of them were painful to read with the knowledge that the voice who spoke them is gone. Especially painful is the moment in which, discussing his childhood, Rakoff writes, “I always felt that my internal clock was calibrated somewhere between forty-seven and fifty-three years old,” because he barely made it to his ideal age. Paradoxically, the last essay, about the cancer that would eventually kill him, ends on a hopeful note, the cancer excised, his left arm, which at one point he thought he would lose, intact. But my knowledge of his death reminded me of another truism dear to all Jews, defensive pessimists, and crotchety old people (two of which I am, and one of which I am probably becoming): half empty is still better than the alternative.