TORONTO - The late David Rakoff is known as a humorist, a radio personality, an essayist, a screenwriter, an actor, a visual artist and a crafter.
And nearly one year after his death, the Toronto-bred New Yorker is now becoming known as a poet.
Just weeks before succumbing to cancer, Rakoff completed his first novel — written entirely in rhyming couplets.
"Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die; Cherish, Perish" is a century-spanning saga that offers a dramatic shift from the first-person radio and magazine pieces he's best known for.
But friends and family say the unabashedly lyrical approach perfectly encapsulates Rakoff's wit, his intellect and his deeply felt soul.
"He was a poet," says his sister Ruth Rakoff.
"In his heart and in his soul and in all of him he was a poet."
Rakoff's fiction debut traces the passions, longings and heartaches of loosely connected characters set in various eras, including turn-of-the-20th-century Chicago, mid-century Manhattan and an AIDS-ravaged San Francisco.
His Doubleday publisher and longtime friend, Bill Thomas, admits to having felt some trepidation when Rakoff first told him he wanted to write such a sweeping tale entirely in verse.
"I paused for quite a while, as one can imagine," Thomas says from his office in New York.
"I was thinking, 'It'll be a challenge.' ... But his passion was so intense that, of course, I acceded to it and it turned out that I was wrong. In fact, it's the best thing he ever wrote."
Rakoff had already been diagnosed with cancer by the time he turned to his most ambitious project.
His previous release, the bestselling collection of essays "Half Empty," included a wry chronicle of searing pain in his left arm and shoulder that he learned was caused by a sizable tumour.
The sarcoma forced him to miss repeated deadlines, in part due to the fact that his arm became practically unusable, Rakoff said in September 2010 during a promotional stop for that book in Toronto.
Two months later, Thomas says Rakoff signed the deal for this novel. Rakoff submitted the manuscript in July 2012 and then powered through four recording sessions to voice the audiobook.
He died less than two weeks later on Aug. 9, 2012, at age 47.
"I think he had to finish it and willed himself to live until he was done," Thomas says of Rakoff's determined push to the end.
"And I think it was because the work — (as for) any writer — the work will stand."
Longtime friend and "This American Life" radio host Ira Glass recalls receiving a draft copy of the book July 15, 2012. It was included in an email that began: "Dear friends."
"The manuscript for the next book is being foisted upon you either because we have spoken about it in the past, you've been helpful in reading parts of the material before or you've expressed a polite willingness to read the complete work," Glass recites from the saved missive, which brims with Rakoff's trademark wit.
"A polite gesture you undoubtedly now regret. At any rate, I attach it herewith. It's about 15 per cent the length of a real book, so that's one plus."
In addition to being a master of nuanced first-person essays, Rakoff had a natural flair for the dramatic, says Glass, noting that his friend seemed to revel in the challenge of his first novel.
"My guess is that he would have continued to write essays but I bet he would have made a shift over to writing stories and drama," says Glass, noting Rakoff has said he found non-fiction writing akin to pulling teeth.
"He said more often to more of us that he was just enjoying it, it went well, and came more easily to him."
Rakoff's passion for the work extended to his insistence that he record the audiobook himself. Glass says work began in the "This American Life" studio "a week or two after he finished the text because he was so concerned about how quickly he was fading."
"It felt very present in the studio, his impeding death," Glass says of the exhausting studio sessions that took place last July.
"He was having aches and pains. He was having a lot of pain in his shoulders and there were times where we would just take a break and I would rub his shoulder just to ease up on the pain."
There was a lot of coughing between takes. Rakoff's breathing became so laboured Glass had to edit them out of the final recording.
"He was tired from the drugs. At one point he was sitting there and he just fell asleep in between takes. He just closed his eyes and just fell asleep."
For Glass, the hardest part was listening to Rakoff recite passages about death.
"There's a scene where Cliff dies, which ends: 'Cliff was now gone, 45 years of age,'" he notes.
"And I said to (Rakoff), 'That seemed really hard to read.' And there's a pause and then David just said: 'I'm 47.'"
Ruth Rakoff notes that her brother had also wanted to draw illustrations for the book, but simply didn't have the strength.
"The last 10 days of his life he kept saying, 'Pass me my sketchbook.' And I would pass him the sketchbook and it would sit next to him on the bed," she says.
As a result, Thomas turned to celebrated book designer Chip Kidd to work out the visuals. He says that with Rakoff's permission, they came up with a concept and hired a cartoonist to illustrate the text.
After Rakoff died, the question became how to adequately promote his final work.
"That was the greatest challenge to think about: How does one publish a book without someone so central to the publication?" says Thomas.
"And the answer to that, really, was very evident even before he passed away, which was that David had thousands of friends. He was such a beloved man. And so many people have come out to help us — to help promote the book, to do readings for us, to do video presentations."
A reading at a Barnes & Noble book store in New York last week featured dozens of friends taking turns to recite his words to hundreds of fans.
The army of readers included friend and former "This American Life" colleague Sarah Vowell, who gushes over the book's richly drawn scenes in a recent interview and argues that the unconventional format allowed Rakoff "to be unabashedly dazzling."
"He was such an impressive person to me. Sometimes I could be almost intimidated by his intellect and his education," says Vowell, among the many pals to receive homemade cards, handcrafted wooden boxes and tiny sculptures over the years from the craft-loving Rakoff.
"He was such a quintessential, sort of New York intellectual but I think he was brought up that way years before he ever left Canada. And in certain ways, this book is so true to his real, impressive, erudite, educated self."
The tale is packed with little nods to Rakoff's favourite things, Vowell adds, pointing to deftly inserted references to the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, English playwright and composer Noel Coward and a 16th century painting by Giovanni Bellini.
She was delighted to catch what she assumes is a sly shoutout to her — a passing mention of her obscure hometown of Bozeman, Mont.
"So much of the book is about mortality and I mean, I don't know, can a writer who isn't dying write a book like this?" she asks.
"I guess so. But, I mean, this one is so much more poignant knowing that this is one of the things that this writer left behind."
Although poetry may seem like a new venture for Rakoff, his sister recalls that one of his most impressive early compositions was a stab at Shakespearean verse during a high school English final.
"The exam question was to rewrite the final scene of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' from the perspective of the mechanicals. And in an exam situation, on the spot, he wrote the entire thing in rhyming couplets. And it was brilliant."
Glass rattles off a long list of interviews, memorials and public events he's accepted, organized and participated in over the past year — all for Rakoff.
"Basically my policy has been anything the publisher wants me to do I'll do," he says.
"The whole last year he's been so present in my life.... Last August feels like it was five minutes ago. And last July, when we recorded this (book), feels like it was six minutes ago.
"I'm not looking forward to what happens after the book is out and then he really starts to be gone."
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