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Don't Get Too Comfortable

By David Rakoff

Doubleday Canada,

222 pages, $29.95

'Alejandra looks like a Victorian lampshade," David Rakoff writes, describing a Latin American Playboy playmate in black lingerie. "A Victorian lampshade with enormous knockers." Which is to say, Don't Get Too Comfortable is easily as funny as Fraud, Rakoff's debut collection of humour essays.

But in this, his sophomore effort, Rakoff -- a former Torontonian who burrowed into the Big Apple more than 20 years ago -- wants also to tickle our consciences, as he weaves moral fibre between the punchlines. These disparate essays document a navel-gazing culture that has confused "affluenza" with spiritual epiphany. In his essay What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping?, speaking of $36 bags of French sea salt and ice cubes imported from the Scottish Highlands, Rakoff fires point blank:

Surely when we've reached the point where we're fetishizing sodium chloride and water, and subjecting both to the kind of scrutiny we used to reserve for choosing an oncologist, it's time to admit that the relentless questing for that next undetectable gradation of perfection has stopped being about the thing itself, and crossed over in a realm of narcissism so overwhelming as to make the act of masturbation look selfless.

With a logic as clear and sharp as his prose, Rakoff repeatedly pulls the reader aside and says, look here: "There's no great trick in getting people across the Atlantic in three hours," he writes of the Concorde. "Burn twice as much fuel as a 747 and carry one quarter the payload. It is a beautifully controlled yet hideously wasteful bonfire. That it has continued to be in operation even this long is frankly amazing."

At other moments, Rakoff is able only to turn toward the camera and shake his head in pity; the hopeless klatch of gay conservatives known as the Log Cabin Republicans is described as a "confounding genus, a creature that seems to invite its own devouring; the cow helpfully outlining its tastiest cuts on its side with chalk, while happily pouring the A-1 sauce over its own head."

But Rakoff's craft extends past sentence carpentry, as Privates on Parade, the most ambitious and successful essay in a runtless collection, proves. Beginning with a short meditation on the psychological and sexual aftermath of 9/11, Rakoff surveys Times Square two months after the World Trade Center attacks, and then ushers us into the John Houseman Theater for a performance of Puppetry of the Penis. The effortless segue from what Rakoff describes as "the new Weimar" to the old Oscar Meyer wiener demonstrates his complete control.

But he isn't happy landing this double lutz. After a forensic circumcision -- make that castration -- of the two wankers on stage making hamburger and Eiffel Tower shapes of their penises ("The embarrassment I feel as I exit the John Houseman is not in having a penis of my own. It is in having retinas"), Rakoff returns to 9/11, bookending the puppetry review with a discussion of how a fellow New Yorker's rudeness -- not 24 hours after the tragedy -- proved that "we were still intact." Across 11 short pages, this essay sutures numerous moving set pieces into a seamless whole; we laugh, we cry.

Besides displaying considerable talent, these essays remain fresh because Rakoff specializes in being the wrong person in the wrong place, thus adding the requisite amount of tension (comedic and otherwise). He spends a week working at a Miami hotel as a "pool ambassador," ensuring that only paying guests use the chlorine and chaises longues. He is careful to observe the journalistic absurdity: "As I wait for my breakfast in my white terrycloth robe, I think, I hope room service arrives on time so I'm not late for my fake job."

Ogling the aforementioned "Victorian lampshade," well, that was more duty than pleasure for Rakoff: "As a homosexual delivered by cesarean section, I have spent my life at a double remove." Rakoff also uses Don't Get Too Comfortable to describe how he finally became a U.S. citizen, offering proof that it is possible to rectify the grievous error of being born Canadian.

By abandoning the memoirish form of Fraud, Rakoff generates the elbow room necessary for social critique and philosophizing. His decision to smack and bruise our funny bone proves that Rakoff is a risk-taker, since continuing his crowd-pleasing, fraudulent behaviour would have been easy: David Sedaris has made a tidy career from wonky portraits of friends and family.

The book concludes with Off We're Gonna Shuffle, an essay about an Extreme Life Extension Conference hosted by Alcor, an Arizona company that rents out freezer space to those who wish to convert their craniums into creamsicles. Rakoff has no pity for this confab of feckless, death-denying cryonauts: "Why are we coming away from the table -- laden with a plenty never seen before in human history -- still feeling so hungry?" Rakoff has earned the right to raise his voice: Fraud concluded with a reflection on death, where he described wriggling free of the Grim Reaper by surviving Hodgkin's disease.

Don't Get Too Comfortable is powered by a vicious and efficient two-stroke engine of anger and wit; it is a sustained and successful assault on that old yuppie bumper sticker, Whoever Dies With The Most Toys, Wins. "It's nice to have nice things," Rakoff concedes. "Creature comfort is not some bourgeois capitalist construct, but framing it as a moral virtue sure is." Wise words to consider as you flip through today's Style section.

Ryan Bigge is a Toronto-based journalist and blogger.

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