Travels With an Uneasy Observer


David Rakoff is doing his fish-out-of-water thing.

On this sweltering morning he is outfitted in a brown jacket over a navy T-shirt, dark slacks and black thick-soled boots--made not for scaling mountains but for prowling, clubbing and other vagaries of urban adventure.

The current trek plops this Canadian-cum-New Yorker at the fringes of L.A. summer with a different purpose. This time, instead of gathering color and quotes for one of his wildly outrageous magazine stories, he's on other side of the Q&A--promoting; his new book, "Fraud" (Doubleday).

Though seated outdoors, Rakoff politely removes his oval shades and squints against the ridiculousness of the over-bright sun. If he's incredulous that it's nearly 90 degrees and only 11:30 a.m., he hides it well, flipping open the menu and ordering a Nicoise salad and tall iced coffee. He leans into business, a man used to acclimating quickly. Or attempting to will himself to.

Whether over the radio, on the page or across a narrow two-top beneath a fast-wilting ficus in a Pasadena restaurant, Rakoff knows the incantatory power of a story well-told, the art of keeping words aloft like the bubbles in a champagne flute. He possesses the crackling wit of a '30s screwball comedy ingenue, a vocabulary that is a treasure chest of mots justes , impressive but most times not too showy for everyday wear.

Known for his off-kilter perspective, in person he tends to downplay it all. "Being humorous is, I think, preverbal. I don't know if I'm all that funny. I think sometimes I can get off a good one," says Rakoff, whose voice and build are both slight and elegant, yet full of unexpected angles. "I think that my perceptions of things are from a humorous stance. Whether that manifests as humor that other people like is luck of the draw. And frequently," he says with the pause of the world-weary, "it's what you get if you don't get to be beautiful."

But the arriving salad cheers him. His eyes widen at the toss of greens in a puddle of orange dressing--a green onion stalk plunged into its center like a listing flagpole. He pauses. "This couldn't be so perfectly L.A. I feel like I'm in the movie 'Shampoo'! Julie Christie is having lunch with Goldie Hawn," he enthuses. "It's delicious."

"Fraud" pulls together a sampling of Rakoff's work--some original, some culled from pieces written for venues as disparate as slicks like Outside and GQ, the New York Times or the idiosyncratic, award-winning public radio show "This American Life." He's made bank and a solid reputation as the eloquent if awkward observer. To say the new collection is a bit like a slide show would be aiming low. To say it is a mini-memoir is too high-flown--it moves gleefully somewhere down the middle.

The book is filled with effervescent observation, an antidote to an era overburdened by the snide and the ironic. "For him, humor is a big blue security blanket--his sense of humor wrapped around his arm," says Amy Scheibe, senior editor at Doubleday. 'He doesn't use it to attract attention. He does it to deflect. And he makes you feel smart for getting it."

"In New England Everyone Calls You Dave" is the meta-story of Rakoff's Christmas Day hike with an expert climber in southwestern New Hampshire. "The hiking boots the outdoor adventure magazine sent me to buy, large, ungainly potato-like things ... cut into my feet and draw blood as if they were lined with cheese graters," he writes. "I have come to hate these Timberlands with a fervor I usually reserve for people." As for his dealings with the locals: "I have to let go of my paranoia. I feel completely comfortable. So comfortable in fact inexplicably I find myself asking the bartender if there is either a synagogue or a gay bar in Jaffrey."

"Including One Called Hell" sweeps Rakoff off to the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, N.Y., where (perpetually tardy) movie star and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism Steven Seagal will lead the group in lessons. Rakoff observes: "The group, myself included, seem to be the unwitting members of the American Gap-oise.... I fit in rather comfortably with the rest of the vaguely disgruntled seekers .... Twenty years ago we would have been readers of Robert Persig. Now we own well-thumbed copies of 'The Jew in the Lotus.' We've done yoga. We've been lactose intolerant."

Though his prose is shot through with wry scrutiny and skepticism, it isn't over-burdened with cynicism. He revels in the incongruities of his place in the worlds he enters, then takes a pin to self-importance, not just in those he's observing, but also in himself. (He admits to getting a little too into his role as "Christmas Freud" for a Barneys seasonal window.) Neither is he above revising his opinions about puffed-up celebrities like Seagal or Robin Williams.

For Ira Glass, host of "This American Life," Rakoff's is a complicated gift. "If you've ever watched 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' well, Rakoff is Angel. He's a vampire cursed with a soul. He goes in to make fun of others. But if you just lean on it too much, then you're hateful. For Rakoff, in every story he takes the knife out in the first part, then puts it back. He just says 'Oh, I was wrong."'

Rakoff has booked passage on many an adventure--urban and otherwise--in the fancy guise of the journaliste and sees the travel as just another extension of his perpetual role as dabbler: writer, artist, actor, an East Asian Studies major, even a patient who's survived a bout with cancer ("Hodgkins ... is so curable," he writes, "that I like to refer to it ... as the dilettante cancer."

The son of a psychiatrist and a doctor, and the youngest of three siblings, Rakoff, 36, says he's always been in search. He's tried on many identities.

"How horrible to realize that there wasn't going to be any comfort until I got older. I was not a successful younger person," he says.

Of college and East Asian Studies, Rakoff says: "Picking a college major was not the proactive choice of one thing that I loved so much as the agmination of many things that I loved. I was green and new in American university. Much to Columbia's discredit, I walked in the dean's office freshman year and asked, 'Is there some way that I can learn four languages for my major?' and the response I got was "Noooo.' It was like: What is this? Barneys?"

Rebuffed, Rakoff decided on a challenge. Japanese. "It taught me the importance in adult life of being bad at something before you can be good at something. Because there is no building on what you know. You just start from blank cortex."

Starting from nothing is Rakoff in his element. "He reacts well, he thinks well," says Jay Stowe, executive editor at Outside magazine, which has often sent Rakoff out to attempt some man-against-nature feat--from hiking to the basics of by-your-wits outdoor survival. "His writing is such a great combination of finely tuned urbane with the kind of absurdity that is not urbane in the least."

In these incongruous scenarios--the urbanite in the wilderness or tracking the unwitting in the lion's den, says Amy Scheibe, "you get this sense of how uncomfortable he feels in the world. He's tuned just a little bit higher than the rest of us. He picks up things that we don't pick up."

Rakoff, of course, sees it a little differently: "I became the go-to guy ... for these things because ... I haven't had an idea since 1975. It's really my great good fortune. And long may she wave! But I have no illusions that that's going to dry up the next time a 23-year-old comes down the pike." It's also true, says Rakoff, that "one of the many perils of hackdom that I face is that I can't be fish out of water more than three times."

He may say this, but he doesn't take this first blush of success for granted--or lightly. He feels tremendously indebted to friends such as Glass and writer David Sedaris, who have been sturdy sounding boards. But he also credits, although cavalierly, his scare with Hodgkins for sharpening his focus. The illness, he says, ultimately taught him a couple of salient things, one about entitlement, the other about humor and the ways he has employed it to avoid and deflect what was daunting or painful.

"When I graduated college, like most middle-class white Northeastern college grads, I was a smartass. And I thought the world was going to be my oyster," he says. "And then I got sick and the opposite paradigm took hold--which was in fact, this was hubris. I felt like I had gotten my comeuppance. I think I really did retrofit my expectations."

He admits in "Fraud" that if you gloss over pain or fear with jokes, "you end up with curiously dispassionate memories. Procedural and depopulated. It's as if a neutron bomb went off." And he'll be honest. "I know if I got sick again, I'd probably be up to my old tricks."

Right now, for this moment, even in this oppressive Southern California sun, Rakoff says, "I'm the luckiest guy in North America. So I'm checking for lumps. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. I'm always checking for lumps."

Yet he struggles with that default. He knows how humor can be used and misused.

"There was this wholesale irony of a few years ago where everybody was dipping their voices like early David Letterman. Being funny is overvalued in these celebrity-mad times." Humor isn't a balm. "Even though laughter may be the best medicine," he writes, "it is not ... actually medicine. One needs more than laughter to round out and sustain life."

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