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Travels With an Uneasy Observer

David Rakoff knows the power of a story well-told. His latest book, 'Fraud,' is an off-kilter antidote to an era overburdened by the snide and the ironic.

June 27, 2001|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Rakoff is doing his fish-out-of-water thing.

On this sweltering morning he is outfitted in a brown jacket over a navy T-shirt, dark slacks and black thick-soled boots--made not for scaling mountains but for prowling, clubbing and other vagaries of urban adventure.

The current trek plops this Canadian-cum-New Yorker at the fringes of L.A. summer with a different purpose. This time, instead of gathering color and quotes for one of his wildly outrageous magazine stories, he's on other side of the Q&A--promoting his new book, "Fraud" (Doubleday).

Though seated outdoors, Rakoff politely removes his oval shades and squints against the ridiculousness of the over-bright sun. If he's incredulous that it's nearly 90 degrees and only 11:30 a.m., he hides it well, flipping open the menu and ordering a Nicoise salad and tall iced coffee. He leans into business, a man used to acclimating quickly. Or attempting to will himself to.

Whether over the radio, on the page or across a narrow two-top beneath a fast-wilting ficus in a Pasadena restaurant, Rakoff knows the incantatory power of a story well-told, the art of keeping words aloft like the bubbles in a champagne flute. He possesses the crackling wit of a '30s screwball comedy ingenue, a vocabulary that is a treasure chest of mots justes , impressive but most times not too showy for everyday wear.

Known for his off-kilter perspective, in person he tends to downplay it all. "Being humorous is, I think, preverbal. I don't know if I'm all that funny. I think sometimes I can get off a good one," says Rakoff, whose voice and build are both slight and elegant, yet full of unexpected angles. "I think that my perceptions of things are from a humorous stance. Whether that manifests as humor that other people like is luck of the draw. And frequently," he says with the pause of the world-weary, "it's what you get if you don't get to be beautiful."

But the arriving salad cheers him. His eyes widen at the toss of greens in a puddle of orange dressing--a green onion stalk plunged into its center like a listing flagpole. He pauses. "This couldn't be so perfectly L.A. I feel like I'm in the movie 'Shampoo'! Julie Christie is having lunch with Goldie Hawn," he enthuses. "It's delicious."

"Fraud" pulls together a sampling of Rakoff's work--some original, some culled from pieces written for venues as disparate as slicks like Outside and GQ, the New York Times or the idiosyncratic, award-winning public radio show "This American Life." He's made bank and a solid reputation as the eloquent if awkward observer. To say the new collection is a bit like a slide show would be aiming low. To say it is a mini-memoir is too high-flown--it moves gleefully somewhere down the middle.

The book is filled with effervescent observation, an antidote to an era overburdened by the snide and the ironic. "For him, humor is a big blue security blanket--his sense of humor wrapped around his arm," says Amy Scheibe, senior editor at Doubleday. 'He doesn't use it to attract attention. He does it to deflect. And he makes you feel smart for getting it."

"In New England Everyone Calls You Dave" is the meta-story of Rakoff's Christmas Day hike with an expert climber in southwestern New Hampshire. "The hiking boots the outdoor adventure magazine sent me to buy, large, ungainly potato-like things ... cut into my feet and draw blood as if they were lined with cheese graters," he writes. "I have come to hate these Timberlands with a fervor I usually reserve for people." As for his dealings with the locals: "I have to let go of my paranoia. I feel completely comfortable. So comfortable in fact inexplicably I find myself asking the bartender if there is either a synagogue or a gay bar in Jaffrey."

"Including One Called Hell" sweeps Rakoff off to the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, N.Y., where (perpetually tardy) movie star and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism Steven Seagal will lead the group in lessons. Rakoff observes: "The group, myself included, seem to be the unwitting members of the American Gap-oise.... I fit in rather comfortably with the rest of the vaguely disgruntled seekers .... Twenty years ago we would have been readers of Robert Persig. Now we own well-thumbed copies of 'The Jew in the Lotus.' We've done yoga. We've been lactose intolerant."

Though his prose is shot through with wry scrutiny and skepticism, it isn't over-burdened with cynicism. He revels in the incongruities of his place in the worlds he enters, then takes a pin to self-importance, not just in those he's observing, but also in himself. (He admits to getting a little too into his role as "Christmas Freud" for a Barneys seasonal window.) Neither is he above revising his opinions about puffed-up celebrities like Seagal or Robin Williams.

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