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David Rakoff, essayist: 1964-2012

Essayist and humorist David Rakoff, whose darkly comic work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and The New Yorker, among other publications, has died. After two years of treatment for a malignant tumour, the 47-year-old passed away in his Manhattan home on Thursday evening, The New York Times reports.

Born in Montreal in 1964 and raised in Toronto, Rakoff left Canada in 1982 to pursue dance and East Asian studies at Columbia University in New York City. Rakoff later worked as a translator in Japan, though his time there came to an abrupt halt when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 22. With the Hodgkin’s in remission, Rakoff faced a second diagnosis of cancer in 2010. A malignant tumour had been discovered near his left collarbone.

Rakoff spent many years in the publishing trade, working as an editor and publicist, before turning to writing full-time. As an author, he released three affecting collections. Fraud (2001) and Don’t Get Too Comfortable (2006) both won Lambda Literary Awards, and Half-Empty (2010) was awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humor. In a tweet, Publishers Marketplace news editor Sarah Weinman revealed that Rakoff had completed the manuscript for a novel, which Doubleday will publish in 2013.

Rakoff was also a frequent contributor to This American Life and CBC Radio’s Wiretap, on which he memorably appeared as a petty Fred Flinstone (rebroadcast on a 2007 episode of TAL) and as a rhyming Dr. Seuss, offering medical/existential counsel to a metamorphosed Gregor Samsa.

While in Toronto for a 2005 reading, Q&Q had the opportunity to observe first-hand Rakoff’s trademark acerbity in critiquing the privileged (with whom he identified):

Rakoff is not an outsider hectoring from the sidelines, but a court jester poking fun from within….  “I was very lucky,” [he admits]. “Basically, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying fine things. I just don’t think they make you a better person.”