David Rakoff

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish

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Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish Summary

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David Rakoff’s Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is a novel in the cheery verse (rather unlikely for a novel) of anapestic tetrameter, published by Doubleday in 2013. Rakoff was a Canadian-American writer granted American citizenship as an adult. Rakoff died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2012, shortly before his final novel was published.

The novel is divided into fourteen brief chapters, divided into clusters of vignettes, representing individuals from diverse geographies and strata of society. The characters are connected tenuously by means of casual acquaintance.

The first chapter introduces the birth of Margaret (Peg), born to a nineteen-year-old-mother whose husband was killed by the trampling of horses (taking place in the first few decades of the twentieth century). Peg’s mother secretly takes the baby to her work in a Chicago slaughterhouse. Peg’s mother starts dating the brawny and tough-talking Frank, who boasts of his violent past. Peg’s stepfather rapes her as soon as she reaches puberty. When Peg’s mother blames her daughter for the affair, a friendly neighbor, Mrs. Kovacs, encourages Peg to escape in a freight car. Margaret meets a kindly old man, Hiram, on the train on her way to Denver. He comforts Margaret and sings her to sleep.

Hiram is the character who links Peg’s story to that of the protagonist of the next several chapters: Clifford.  Clifford is a young boy living in stiflingly hot Burbank, California with his mother and sickly father, Hiram (the man who helped Peg on the train). Clifford’s father has suffered a stroke, and his mother lives in the past by reminiscing to Clifford about her family trips to Europe. Clifford is socially ostracized, but an eager artist and enjoys drawing. He takes an interest in his cousin, Helen, whom he photographs in an artistic nude pose.

Helen becomes a secretary, working in an office in Manhattan. She is socially shunned at an office Christmas party for her involvement in an office affair (with the company’s boss). Helen gets drunk and broadcasts the affair at an office party, leading to her co-workers’ disdaining her. Helen, once the awkward, shy cousin of Clifford, tries to pretend that the gossip does not bother her. Helen’s boss, alternatively, tires of the affair and leaves Helen mocked and humiliated (even paying for an abortion). Helen tries to resuscitate the affair by giving a collection of stamps to her boss’s son, but her boss shows no interest in her any longer.

Meanwhile, Clifford has moved to San Francisco, where he attends art shows, enjoys experimenting with new fashions and a new group of friends, and draws for a pornographic comic book.

The next vignette showcases the aftermath of a love triangle among Susan, Nathan, and Josh. A recent graduate of Oberlin, Susan works at a small art gallery in New York. Her father helps to finance her bourgeois lifestyle. Susan reveals that she is growing tired of her relationship with Nathan, and so has an affair with their mutual friend Josh, beginning during a trip that the three take to Cape Cod. Nathan is aware of the affair, but does not admit it while on Cape Cod. Instead, he waits until their wedding, where he makes a toast that obliquely hints at his knowledge of the affair. Nathan’s toast (which preserves the rhyming couplets) constitutes a story-within-a-story. Nathen tells a fable of a tortoise and a scorpion, in which the scorpion begs the tortoise for a ride across the river, as the tortoise cannot swim. The duplicitous scorpion assuages the fear of the tortoise, who suspects the scorpion will bite him. The tortoise finally agrees to bring him across the water, but the scorpion breaks his word, stinging the tortoise and causing them both to drown. In relating this tale, Nathan suggests that the newlyweds, like the tortoise and the scorpion, will destroy each other by their very natures.

The narrative then returns to Clifford, still living in San Francisco. He watches many of his friends die of AIDS, and he starts to notice symptoms in himself. Clifford reflects on the insidious nature of the disease, which causes the foundations of friendships to crumble, eroding the unique social life of San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s.

The final few chapters return to Susan and Josh’s life in San Francisco as a married couple. Though the couple has children, Susan is discontented with Josh’s attention devoted to his aging mother, Hannah, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Susan changes her name to Sloan in order to reflect a new identity she assumes for herself.

At age forty-five, Clifford finally passes away from AIDS, attended by his friend, Luis. In close succession, Sloan changes her name to Shulamit (as she now considers herself spiritually enlightened). She also divorces Josh and plans to takes her children to the Holy Land. The novel ends with Josh moving into his studio apartment alone. As Josh is moving his things, he unpacks a box labelled “Ted’s Stuff.” Ted was Josh’s father, who died when Josh was young, and Ted’s box includes the collection of stamps that Clifford’s cousin Helen gathered for the son of her boss, Ted. Also in the box is the nude photograph of Helen that Clifford took. Josh pauses to admire its tastefulness and the artistic talent it exhibits, as well as the sense of hope in the girl’s face.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish was recorded as an audiobook shortly before the writer’s death, assisted by radio personally Ira Glass, host of the program This American Life. His novel received favorable reviews and praise for dealing so deftly with the difficult themes of illness, poverty, adultery, and abuse.