Sunday, January 2, 2011

Half Empty, by David Rakoff

One afternoon during my recent trip to St. Louis I had the pleasure of interviewing my second cousin, once removed, Irene, as part of my research into my family tree. I had been searching for someone with old family photos and, like a prospector whose luck turned, with Irene I struck a deep vein of gold. Irene had a personal treasure trove of photos -- some close to 100-years-old. Even more astounding than her visual record of our family's history, though, were Irene's stories. She had the standard headlines that come with family histories, of course: abandoned spouses, suicides, babies that died and the cousins who were "not quite right in the head." She remembered the landmark events, but what made Irene's memories so rich was that she remembered the in between: the small, everyday, non-happenings that give life its texture. That's the funny thing about researching a family tree; it's not unlike looking at an intricately patterned fabric: the weave may be so dizzyingly complex that the fleck of gold threads may not glint unless held up to just the right light.

When held up to this light the stuff of real life is so thick -- chock full of hilarious missteps, drama, intrigue and conflict of all kinds -- that I sometimes wonder why any writer needs to fabricate a story. Fiction is the sexy sister of nonfiction, but real life is just as dazzling.

In David Rakoff's first book of essays, "Don't Get Too Comfortable," he riffs on becoming an American citizen (he was born in Canada), the ridiculousness of American politics and the pre-bust economy. In "Half Empty," Rakoff's third offering, he aims his bat at a wide range of topics, using his erudite prose and dry sense of humor to hold a magnifyng glass to optimism, the Mormons and Hollwood's Walk of Fame and his anxious childhood. Rakoff's essays about the unsexiness of a pornography convention, and the lack of substance behind the supposedly substantial "Dream House" display at Disneyland show his keen eye. These seemingly banal topics become compelling under Rakoff's telling because he's astute enough to go beyond the obvious -- these are no diatribes -- to show us what we've never noticed. But Rakoff really shines when he delves into the personal -- his writing about the special love he and his fellow (non-observant) Jews have for bacon had me laughing out loud. And, strategically placed at the end, the jaw-dropping honesty with which he tells us about his gruesome battle with cancer left me stunned.

I'm still transcribing Irene's anecdotes. She was so unflinchingly honest -- some of her stories have details so intimate they still can't be told using the family members' names. There was the dignified older auntie who confided to child-Irene that her pious and reserved husband was especially attentive to her sexual needs! There was the older cousin who fought with her daughter only to retreat to the bed of an older aunt and uncle -- with them in it! Irene was generous and trusting enough to let me borrow her photos overnight so I could scan them and add them to our online family tree. But if you look at the fading sepia photos closely something much more valuable is revealed: stories so funny and tragic they glimmer.

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