This Week's Reads

David Rakoff and Benjamin Kunkel.

Don't Get Too Comfortable

By David Rakoff (Doubleday, $22.95) "As a homosexual delivered by cesarian section," writes David Rakoff, "I have spent my life at a double remove." I'll say. He's talking about the Playboy models he's accompanying on a journalistic assignment in Belize. No tropical erections for him; he's not only gay, but Jewish and Canadian to boot. So what is that—quadruple remove? The layers of polite and generally comic condescension can be hard to count in this collection of 15 essays (some of them reworked from Details, Wired, The New York Times Magazine, and other original iterations). Rakoff's fat, easy targets all make for surefire pitches to desperate magazine editors: queer among the Playboy bunnies; skeptically profiling an earnest, likable Log Cabin Republican; unlikely passenger on both the Concorde and Hooters Air (yes, branded by the restaurant chain); pretending to be a cabana boy in Miami Beach. Rakoff is like the child of George Plimpton and Barbara Ehrenreich—the canny imposter, the covert note-taker, the ringer, the clever guy slumming in a barrel of fish. But this public-radio regular generally stops just short of full-blown contempt. He has a social and moral sense, as you'd gather from the epic subtitle: "The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisinal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems." In other words, we've created these problems, these consumer fetishes. It's not the poor Hooters flight attendants (who turn out to have surprisingly higher ambitions) but our luxury fever—to borrow the title of Robert Frank's kindred book—that gives Rakoff hives. "I am a joy- obliterating erotophobe," he says, but he's also a man somewhat out of time, a classicist. Instead of the incessant pop- culture references that pass for funny these days, he measures our crass pursuits against Dickens, Wharton, and Louisa May Alcott. In Rakoff's best chapter, "Martha, My Dear," he shows his likes instead of his dislikes, which tend to dominate the rest of the collection. Disgraced Martha Stewart earns respect, not ridicule, for instilling in women "the value of doing things for themselves. 'How to make' almost always trumps 'How to buy' in my book." In Martha he finds redemption of the old epithet "art fag" into something transcendent, how we lose ourselves in process and flow when crafting humble stuff with our hands. Since he knows that feeling himself, one wishes Rakoff would look a little harder to see it in others. BRIAN MILLER David Rakoff will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Mon., Sept. 26. Indecision

By Benjamin Kunkel (Random House, $21.95) It's the old chicken-and-egg question: Does McSweeney's exist because there are a lot of (mostly) white, (mostly) male thirtysomething hipsters writing cold, über-ironic fiction; or are there a lot of those smug, pasty guys around because of McSweeney's? Benjamin Kunkel has no explicit ties to the Dave Eggers brand. He did found his own lit magazine, called, nerdily, n+1, but it's pretty clear that he's been influenced by his nouveau-pomo peers. His first novel, a wisp of a book riddled with look-at-me cleverness, strains to be more than linguistic wanking, but Kunkel's deeper message gets lost in the muddle. Dwight Wilmerding is (surprise!) a 28-year-old guy living in New York City and working a mindless desk-jockey job. He's got the requisite wacky roommates, a middling love life, and an inability, as the title suggests, to make any real decisions. But wait! When creepy premed roommate Dan passes him a new decisiveness- enhancing medication called Abulinix, Dwight thinks he'll finally be able to figure out what to do with his life. And before we know it, he's off to Ecuador to meet a woman from his past, have an epiphany-inducing drug trip, and ponder the big questions in life: "Is the developed world's exploitation of indigenous people a bad thing?" and "Are the pills working?" It's easy to lose patience with this kind of self-referential slacker lit. You want to smack navel-gazing, privileged Dwight upside the head and tell him to get over it already; dissatisfaction and ennui are part of the human condition, at any age, in any city. To his credit, Kunkel is aware that ironic detachment has serious flaws as a worldview (Dwight's sister angrily tells him, "Everything you say is in quotes"), but he can't really latch onto anything better. The half-baked take on Marxism Dwight winds up with? Uh, no, sorry. Indecision isn't as dire as all that might sound—it's a passable novel, just nothing special. Determining whether it's worth the seven-figure deal Kunkel recently signed for the movie rights . . . well, that's an easy decision. PATRICK ENRIGHT

 
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