UPDATED: David Rakoff — a sharp, sardonic wit who delighted listeners of This American Life and readers of his books of essays — died after a two-year fight with cancer on Thursday. He was 47.
Born in Canada, Rakoff started his career in publishing, where he struck up a friendship with author and humorist David Sedaris. Through Sedaris, Rakoff also got to know an NPR reporter named Ira Glass, and when Glass started his hour long public radio show This American Life, Rakoff was one of its earliest contributors. (He’s also one of the rare few who has guest hosted the show.) “[His death] was no surprise,” Glass wrote Friday on the This American Life blog. “He’d been talking about it for months. He even named August as when it would happen. We’ve watched him get weaker and sicker. But still it’s hard not to be stunned. … He was my friend, our friend here at the radio show, and our brother in creating the program, making it into what it’s become. We loved him. We’ll miss him.”
Through his This American Life appearances and his books of collected essays, including 2001’s Fraud and 2005’s Don’t Get Too Comfortable, Rakoff quickly established his singular worldview: A bemused, trenchant pessimism, informed in equal measure by his Jewish cultural heritage, his homosexuality, and his inveterate loyalty to his adopted home of New York City.
Rakoff also contributed to a great number of publications, from GQ and The New York Times Magazine to Spin and Wired, but he never gave up pursuing his first professional love, acting. In 2009, he starred in (and cowrote) the short film The New Tenants, which costarred Vincent D’Onofrio and Kevin Corrigan and won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. You can watch the trailer below:
While working on his third book, 2010’s Half Empty, Rakoff was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor that had been pinching a nerve in his left arm, placing him under excruciating pain. (He battled cancer, specifically Hodgkin’s disease, once before in his 20s.) Seeing as the book was a paean to pessimism and melancholy, Rakoff’s reaction to the diagnosis could almost perversely be called optimistic, as one can see in his appearance on The Daily Show to promote the book:
In typical fashion, Rakoff’s most recent contributions to This American Life dealt with mortality in distinctive and unexpected ways. For “Show Me The Way,” Rakoff collaborated with writer Jonathan Goldstein on a epistolary short story in which Gregor Samsa from Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis decides to turn to Dr. Seuss for help with his desperate-if-peculiar affliction (i.e. turning into a cockroach). At the end of the piece, host Ira Glass notes that Rakoff has a novel, written completely in rhyme, set to arrive in bookstores next year.
And for “Invisible Made Visible,” performed live and beamed to movie theaters across the country, Rakoff recounted the effects of a recent surgery to cut the nerve that had been causing him so much constant pain — but also rendered his left arm totally limp and numb. You can watch the full performance, uploaded this afternoon by This American Life, below: