David Rakoff’s Fraud is a series of humorous essays detailing the author’s life and travels from New York to New England to Scotland and places in between. He begins by painting a very believable picture of a native, Not Outdoorsy New Yorker going on an expedition for an outdoor adventure magazine, and does so with honesty and humor. “You want greenery? Order the spinach”(1). He uses himself as the point of juxtaposition when we read about this city dweller buying Timberland boots for a hiking trip to New England. We are treated to irony and a bit of exaggeration when he says “Just think, the shoes I wouldn’t be caught dead in might actually turn out to be the shoes I’m caught dead in” (1).There is ample use of the first person to give an intimate feel but his writing is polished to a point where readers are not bombarded with ‘I.’
The author goes further throughout the book than just great humorous descriptions like “the air is positively minty with coniferous freshness” (105). He paints pictures of people and places with his jaded eye but manages to largely keep his venom in check. It’s a backhanded way of assuring us that deep down, he’s not a bad guy and contributes to his likability. Good humor writing need not be mean spirited. He does an incredible job with the use of satire. “It is as if she has raided a Botox dispensary, so unmovable is her perfect face…” (71). The author takes us with him on many journeys all over the world, skewering everything in his path, himself included. When one examines the text we can see that frequently the targets of Rakoff’s humor are himself, objects and places.
The reason the humor works so well in these essays is because the jokes are secondary to the stories being told. Early in the essay “Back to the Garden” we read of the author’s adventure in a wilderness survival course. The humor is there in abundance when he describes his fellow students. “They radiate good health as they unpack bags of gorp, apples, whole wheat pitas, and huge water bottles. I have also come prepared with a deli-size Poland Spring, assorted candy bars and four packs of Marlboro Lights…” (170). We get a nice sense of pride by the end when Rakoff writes “I can’t help feeling that I could if I needed to, and survive. Lavishly” (189). He took himself so far out of his element that readers are proud of him,
What makes a narrator believable? Vivian Gornick describes believability as a “successful fusion of experience, perspective and personality that is fully present on the page. (I would add relatability here.) …we feel that we know who is speaking. The ability to make us believe this is the trustworthy narrator achieved.” Readers don’t have to like the person who is speaking but he or she does need to garner our understanding and sympathy. (This writer did like the narrator quite a bit because of his unabashed willingness to expose his foibles. )
Rakoff’s writing is rife with all of these elements. Early on we read “Despite the fact, or precisely because this is just what I wanted, I reply, my voice far too bright, ‘Oh God, no. I’m a complete idiot’” (8). We get a combination of his vulnerability in wanting to be recognized as a writer and pointing out a foible in his too-bright reply. It’s interesting to note that he manages not to take self deprecation too far; it’s tempered with a bit of compassion. His descriptions of himself are frequently less than flattering as above, but they are also realistic as when he describes himself as being a sweet and naive kid working at an ice cream shop. We also see a human being who is occasionally frustrated with himself and also curious about his view of the world. He writes “Where was this serenity and openness and relaxation three days ago?” (64) and “Why now, of all times, this sudden fear of having my essential Canadian-ness erased?” (96). How understandable is it to feel excited and almost guilty at the same time about getting a green card?
He details a trip to Iceland, to investigate the existence of the “Hidden People,” hidden mythical creatures of local folklore. One of the most relatable incidents we see is when Rakoff recounts “I am suddenly overcome with a completely inappropriate urge: the barely suppressed impulse to slam my hand down on the coffee table really, really, hard, right where she’s pointing” (88). Frankly, after reading about the person who was a bit rude to him because he couldn’t see the “hidden people” on the table, I was tempted, too. The author did not censor himself from this all too human feeling.
These experiences become compelling in Rakoff’s hands because the narrator has turned himself into a character to achieve the perfect distance to honestly tell us what happened. He’s also pointing out his own flaws when we read “…the subsequent paranoid recriminations that I was stealing office supplies (which, of course, would be true), on until the final confrontation…” (96). This is probably one of the most relatable flaws on the planet. When Philip Lopate writes about turning oneself into a character we learn of the need to have some distance from the self and view ourselves honestly and objectively in addition to mining one’s quirks, as above. Rakoff does this so thoroughly through the use of tone, humor and detail that we are almost a fellow traveler on his journey. This objectivity is used to detail again and again how Rakoff never seems to feel at home anywhere, including his own skin. He writes “The pilot is the anti-me. A man so utterly comfortable with himself that he can drink a cocktail with no fewer than three different pieces of fruit in it….” (8).
The author doesn’t give us a lot of physical details of himself but we nonetheless get a sense of who he is when we read “ But like the making of sausages, federal legislation and the film work of Robin Williams, there are some things I would just rather not witness firsthand” (22). He is referring to his experience on a chicken farm. Athleticism and agrarian life, clearly don’t agree with him and he has plenty of company. He uses his humor like a paintbrush not an overt elbow-in-the-ribs.
There is so much humor throughout the book that it can be easy to miss another great skill of Rakoff. He describes most of the people he encounters with honesty and occasionally admiration. Despite what he may want us to believe, deep down we get the sense of a decent guy. The humor was used to highlight absurdity, not maliciously injure. Readers got to relate to him, to laugh, to occasionally like him and most importantly feel like we weren’t being bamboozled.
I was dismayed to learn that David Rakoff passed away relatively young and that what we have is all there is of his work. The concept of feeling intrinsically excluded continues throughout the book and goes right up to the ending when Rakoff writes “…even now I only half believe what I am telling you” (226). While Fraud from Rakoff’s point of view may have been an appropriate title, I am inclined to believe otherwise. He gives readers no reason to doubt him.
Barbara Godshalk is a South Jersey writer and graduate student in the Writing Arts program of Rowan University. She is a long time member of the South Jersey Writers Group. Her work has been published in the anthology Tall Tales and Short Stories from South Jersey, the website www.inthepowderroom.com, and www.humoroutcasts.com.