Rakoff's 'Fraud' -- fish out of water

April 29, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd | By Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff

"Fraud," by David Rakoff. Doubleday. 240 pages. $21.95.

This is a funny, funny book for the most part. Let's get that out of the way first. In his new collection of essays, David Rakoff, a regular contributor to Salon and Outside magazines and Public Radio International's "This American Life," makes a strong bid for the title of Most Neurotic Man on the Planet, and the results are absolutely hilarious -- when they're not achingly revealing and tinged with sadness.

Rakoff specializes in the fish-out-of-water scenario: the urbane city dweller at a wilderness survival camp, enduring a lesson on how to conduct a full-body check for ticks; the caustic, world-weary New Yorker at a leafy New Age retreat center, where dewey-eyed matrons in fringed halter tops and wrap-around skirts dispense Omega Hugs to each other; the skittish, gay, Jewish teen-ager surrounded by hearty, barrel-chested, avidly-heterosexual Israeli men crating live chickens on a kibbutz.

In one essay, "In New England, Everyone Calls You Dave," Rakoff takes us along on an assignment for an outdoors magazine, a Christmas Day hike up 3,000-foot Mount Monadnock in southwestern New Hampshire.

The panic begins when he discovers the trip will include a flight on a tiny plane from Boston:

"I tear my medicine cabinet apart like Billie Holiday and still uncover only one Xanax. The hiking boots the outdoor adventure magazine sent me to buy -- large, ungainly, potato-like things that I have been trying to break in for the last four days -- cut into my feet and draw blood as if they were lined with cheese graters."

But that, of course, is nothing compared to the horror of arriving at his destination, only to find he'll be staying in a phone-less, TV-less bed-and-breakfast, not a hotel:

"I have very little patience for what is generally labeled 'charming.' In particular, Country Charm. I have an intense dislike of flowered wallpaper; ditto jam of all sorts. The former is in all-too-abundant evidence when I enter the inn, and the latter, I'm sure, lies in wait in the cheery kitchen. There is a knotty pine bar off the entrance with a settee with several embroidered pillows: 'I'd rather be golfing.' 'On the eighth day, God created golf.' ...

"On the windowsill above, a ginger cat is bothering a stained-glass butterfly ornament as the sunlight streams through the leaded pains. It is all I can do not to cry."

Yet for all the self-flagellating humor and vicious, if dead-on, observations, there are moments in this book when Rakoff picks at the scabs of his insecurities, and what gushes forth is pure poetry, with a poignancy that rises above the one-liners.

In "Lush Life," describing the nightly whine-fests of lowly publishing assistants -- he was once one -- in grungy hotel bars, he writes:

"As the evening wore on, a hostile, gin-scented pall fell over everything and our glittering aphorisms were reduced to the wishful and direct: 'I hope my boss is dead right now.' Paying the bill, we stumbled out into the street and back to our apartments, where we spent the rest of the night jealously reading the manuscripts of those who actually wrote and didn't just drink about it.'

If you love the personal essay, you'll love David Rakoff's musings.

Kevin Cowherd is a features columnist for The Sun and has worked for the newspaper for 21 years. His 1995 collection of humor columns, "Last Call at the 7-Eleven," (Bancroft Press, $19.95) can still be found in fine remainder bins everywhere.

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