Scenes from the 'realish' life of David Sedaris
Being funny has made David Sedaris a well-off man.
It can be gauche, sometimes unethical, to mention this sort of thing. Review the book, critics are told, not the author or the sales figures. But Sedaris' success has become an unavoidably integral part of his work. Each bestseller lands him a new book tour, flies him to a new vacation spot, delivers him to a new home. And in each new place he can again observe the foibles within himself and others that made him arguably America's best-known humor writer. Nearly two decades since his debut collection, "Barrel Fever," he's become the closest thing the genre has to a perpetual motion machine.
"Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls," his eighth book, is studded with stories in which Sedaris is a victim of brand-new circumstance. With each milieu he parachutes into, he's overpowered by a sense of surprise, disgust or frustration. Here he is in Australia -- "Canada in a thong, or that's the initial impression." There he is in irredeemably unhygienic China, where the service grade in the window of one restaurant is "a smiley face with the smile turned upside down." And here he is in England, where his new home in the verdant countryside is overwhelmed with trash.
This wide-eyed guy named David is a cultivated persona, to be sure -- he's responded to accusations of massaging details about his personal life by saying his pieces are "realish." But one reason Sedaris' work has remained so effective and so funny is that his emotional responses, a blend of flintiness and compassion, remain unvarnished. His style of humor blunts sentiment and replaces it with a gallows humor that finds unlikely comedy in taxidermied human heads and attempted assault. If his new book isn't quite as mortality-obsessed as his previous set of personal essays, 2008's "When You Are Engulfed in Flames," its core sensibility is still the feeling that the other shoe is dropping.
"I've always had an eye for ruined-looking men," he writes in the collection's best-turned piece, "A Guy Walks Into a Bar Car." Recalling his callow 20-something attraction to alcoholics on Amtrak rides, he finds a dream man with an aspect resembling "a screw-top bottle of wine the day before it turns to vinegar." In that piece and in most of the personal essays, Sedaris tucks a revealing, poignant moment amid a whirlwind of comic shenanigans. Writing about his ill-fated attempt to raise sea turtles as a child -- turns out you can't replicate salt water by pouring salt into water -- he recalls how his library research trip led him to stumble onto two men in flagrante delicto in the restroom. "The men were doing something indecent, and recognizing it as such meant that I had an eye for it. That I too was suspect. And wasn't I?"
Sedaris' family, the drivetrain of so many of his funniest pieces, is still around: His father remains as hardheaded as ever, easing up only slightly to insist that David get a colonoscopy. (Yet another strange territory to tentatively investigate.) But his childhood stories now focus more on his own shortcomings than those of his parents or siblings. Recalling his attempt to befriend a poor black girl in ninth grade, he's struck by the condescension he was oblivious to at the time. He's only matured so much, however: In "Standing By," he's openly contemptuous of the people he's stuck with at the airport, and "Now Hiring Friendly People" is about nothing more complicated than being forced to wait in the line at Starbucks.
So the job of being David Sedaris, successful humor writer, means forever making gestures toward growing up but never quite pulling it off. Send him to the dentist, to Costco, to South Korea, and he'll come back with a story about how he can't muster up the requisite adult demeanor in any of those places. But the job demands that he try. In his new home in the British countryside, he's so repulsed by the rubbish spoiling the landscape that he's motivated to do roadside trash pickup by himself. "What did my life consist of before this?" he writes, mocking himself. "Surely there was something I was devoted to?"
As if he doesn't know the answer. Then and now, he's writing. And with each scrap he picks up -- be it a stray potato-chip bag or a Hawaii vacation -- he's gathered that much more fodder for another funny book.