There's a whole lot of poetry in David Rakoff's final novel, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, and not just because it's written in rhyming couplets of iambic tetrameter. Leaping between cities and eras, the epic story follows interconnected characters whose lives are very much products of their times. The daughter of slaughterhouse workers flees Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. A hobo hops a train during the Great Depression. A secretary has a fling with her sexist boss during the '50s. A gay man discovers the summer of love in late-'60s San Francisco. And a selfish wife gives in to the materialism of the '80s. The literary rhythm captures the steady momentum of American progress, which is somewhat ironic since these people all have the same sad story. They start out with so much potential. But, eventually, everyone dies. Just like the rest of us.
The fact that Rakoff succumbed to cancer not long after this book was written makes that theme all the more poignant. You see him falling in love with language again, and knowing that it's his last chance to use it. His descriptions of significant moments in these characters' everyday lives are beautiful and melancholy: A patient notices her doctor using ''a brick of pink soap/The color of dawn, the exact shade of hope.''
You also hear echoes of Rakoff's own illness, especially the anger that comes when bodies waste away and words are all that are left. At one point, a stroke victim discovers that trying to form thoughts is ''like trying to sculpt something solid from smoke.'' Rakoff makes no attempt to sentimentalize that decline even poking fun at the idea that life is about ''the journey, not the destination.'' Maybe it's fitting, then, that this slim novel is over way too soon, with a final image that made my eyes well up. Whether you view that image as hopeful or tragic will say a lot about you. Either way, it's funny and heartbreaking and, like Rakoff himself, not easy to forget. A