David rules

Ironic detachment is not a trait one looks for in a friend or a spouse, but it can serve as an effective platform for a writer alert to his or her pitfalls. Indeed, there is a growing movement—not exactly a school yet—of young, very talented stylists who earn their keep by adopting this tone of the hip, observant, amused outsider. Most of these writers, by some accident of the cosmos, seem to be named David. David Foster Wallace, David Sedaris, Dave Eggers. Stepping gingerly into this jacuzzi of Davidness, not wanting to make waves as much as join the fun, comes another smart, funny, mildly sarcastic David—David Rakoff with his collection of essays, Fraud.

The book starts with an epigraph from Addison De Witt: “You’re maudlin and full of self-pity. You’re magnificent.” And if the 15 maudlin, self-piteous essays collected in Fraud aren’t entirely magnificent, they are certainly hugely entertaining. Each piece follows roughly the same arc. The author finds himself, usually at the behest of a magazine editor, involved in a faintly absurd situation. With the sad-sack mien of the perpetual outsider, Rakoff is free to be part of the action, to a point, while maintaining his status as observer.

Essays such as these depend largely on the writer’s ability to draw the reader into some sort of complicity or fellow feeling. In this respect, Rakoff is quite successful. Perhaps the fact that Rakoff is Jewish and gay—likely not a stranger to the various faces of bigotry—provides him with a certain inclination to tolerance. The best pieces in Fraud, for all their bluster, usually end with their author softening toward his subjects. This ability to retreat ever so slightly from an initial resistance has a rounding effect on the narrator. So, for example, Rakoff can gently ridicule the survivalist/mystic school led by Tom Brown while maintaining a genuine respect for the man himself.

No matter how generous he is, how inclined to friendliness, Rakoff’s strength (and he knows it) lies in the opposite direction: his ripostes, sarcasm and wicked wit. These are what drive the essays and they are almost always on target. The most devastating piece, in this respect, is “Including One Called Hell,” in which an even crankier-than-usual Rakoff attends a seminar called “Cultivating Compassion and Clarity” led by none other than martial artist/ Tibetan monk Steven Seagal. Here is Rakoff, after being advised to address Seagal as Rinpoche (term of respect; literally, “precious jewel"): “Precious Jewel eventually does arrive some forty-five minutes late. What turns out to be Seagal Standard Time. He is in a large phase, with a bit of late-model Brando girth about him. … His narrow eyes, sleek ponytail, and variation on traditional Tibetan attire … lend him the air of a Mongol potentate.” That is just the beginning, and it represents the pinnacle of the author’s opinion of the movie star.

As in most collections, some of these essays work better than others. What the weakest have in common is a premise that is just too thin. A trip to Loch Ness, a hike up a small mountain in Connecticut, musings about a job in publishing: Rakoff can’t hang enough on these skeletons to bring them to life. On the whole, however, Fraud stands up admirably. Some of the pieces—the Seagal polemic, “Christmas Freud,” “The Best Medicine” (in which Robin Williams gets his comeuppance)—are outstanding, and all leave you wanting to read more. Perhaps it’s just a good time for ironic detachment, or a good time to be a writer named David. And if you’re covered on both counts, look out.