Two great figures in literature died this past summer, and though I knew they couldn’t be with us forever — Gore Vidal because of his advanced years; David Rakoff because of his advanced illness — I had deeply hoped against hope that each would.
The two are a study in contrasts, though I doubt they have yet been examined side by side. Vidal, the film and TV writer and author of the scandalizing The City and the Pillar and Myra Breckenridge, was known to the world as much for his pursuit of fame as for his elegant and erudite writing. He ran for Congress twice and delighted in verbally attacking pundits (witness his 1968 debate with ultraconservative William F. Buckley in which Vidal called him a “crypto-Nazi”), some fellow authors (he said Truman Capote’s death was “a good career move”), and even Abraham Lincoln (“Nothing that Shakespeare ever invented was to equal Lincoln’s invention of himself”).
Rakoff was an essayist, journalist, and author of Fraud and Half Empty. For the latter book, in which he describes the return of the cancer that eventually took his life, I spoke with him, and during the interview he offered to make me a lampshade from his collection of glass slides of lung infection X-rays; I’ll never forgive myself for not pursuing the offer more vigorously. Though he and Vidal were both performers, the hilariously melancholic Rakoff, I imagine, would have withered at the idea of running for public office, nor would he have so insulted his cohorts to their faces that he’d risk a punch in the nose. Vidal got at least a few of those.
On TV, Vidal was cool, detached, and confident. On NPR, Rakoff was subdued and neurotic; the term “self-deprecating” is woefully insufficient. But I venture to say they’d have liked each other. Rakoff’s writing was aphoristic, and Vidal loved a clever turn of phrase: When a critic called Vidal’s work “meretricious,” Vidal replied, “Meretricious to you, and a happy new year.”
Both men were prolific and engaging, and out. Gore bristled at the label “gay,” both for himself and for a community, but routinely called himself a “fag.” Rakoff seemed to regard his homosexuality as a window through which he viewed blind dates, AIDS, and the proliferation of cupcake bakeries in New York as roughly equivalent scourges on humanity. Nevertheless, both men made me want to write more, speak my opinions more loudly, and suffer fewer fools. I’ll miss them both dearly.