Review: The best pieces in David Sedaris’ uneven new collection mix some grit with the grins
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David Sedaris has spent the last 20 years trying to make his readers laugh in print, on the radio (his work has regularly been featured on This American Life), and in person, Sedaris being that rare author who commands audiences to his readings that would rival any decent indie rock band. But there has always existed an undercurrent of profound sadness in his work, too, which is perhaps the truth of all comics: Humor is about the negativity of life, about the worst possible things happening to someone other than you — the absurd reality of human experience being that we find other people’s pain entertaining.
In Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, his latest collection of essays and ephemera (a few short-short satirical stories and one poem about dogs break up the essays), Sedaris seems to have hit a bit of a lull that can only be found with success: He seems pretty happy about his life. The result is a collection that finds his usual heights, but some surprising lows, too.
It’s not as if essayists need to be miserable for us to enjoy them, merely that it’s when Sedaris reflects on his youth that the most amusing and moving pieces seem to appear. In “Memory Laps,” for instance, Sedaris recounts summers spent on the swim team at the Raleigh Country Club, which on its face seems like the sort of faded-yellow snapshots many of us have about our childhood, except in Sedaris’ case it’s a memory of how hard it was to gain his father’s approval, particularly in light of his father’s fondness for another boy on the swim team. “Dad wants Greg Sakas to be his son instead of me, I thought, and in response I made myself the kind of kid that nobody would like.” In fact he’s just a normal, annoying kid, albeit one with creative ways to antagonize his siblings. When his father begins to apparently favor Donny Osmond over him, too, well, the pain gets a bit more stiff: “Competing against celebrities, people who were not in any sense ‘real,’ was a losing game. I knew this as well as I knew my name and troop number, but the more my father carried on about Donny Osmond, the more threatened and insignificant I felt.”
It’s a painful memory, no doubt, but it’s also so silly as to be amusing, which is Sedaris’ charm: He can turn the grist of what would be innumerable therapy sessions into an essay that makes you smile at the idiocy of life. Similarly, Sedaris is able to find the humor and pathos in his time as a “starving artist” in Raleigh, a seemingly innocent time that ends when someone tries to rape his sister and which highlights the stark racial divide of the city and his family. His father makes Sedaris go searching for the would-be rapist with him, stopping indiscriminate African-American men along the way. It’s cringe-inducing stuff, rendering the young Sedaris mortified, an outsider even within his own family.
When he’s less successful — as in “A Cold Case,” about the theft of his laptop, but really about dealing with bureaucracy; or “Dentists Without Borders,” about his odd relationships with medical professionals; or his travel essay “Laugh, Kookabura” — the experiences feel too common, as if while they were happening he was making mental notes on how he’d later convey them. All writers inventory experiences, for fictional or nonfictional purposes, so there’s no shame in this. It’s merely that the essays themselves lack the gravity of his other work. The stakes aren’t high enough for the comedy to be hilarious or the tragedy to be vital, so the pieces end up entertaining, if trivial in comparison. I suppose that’s always the challenge with collections of any kind — the essays here weren’t written to stand with each other, at least not initially, so when there’s repetition on a theme or one piece feels less powerful than the others, there’s a disparity because of the form of the book, but not always with the individual work.
Sedaris has long cultivated his own personal foibles for comedy — your average Sedaris essay about his adult life basically involves the author running into people who annoy him (“There’s a short circuit between my brain and my tongue, thus ‘Leave me the fuck alone’ comes out as ‘Well, maybe. Sure. I guess I can see your point.’”) and then he’s left to figure out who the wronged party is in the exchange. When this model is successful — as in “A Guy Walks into a Bar Car,” which is about exactly what it sounds like — Sedaris never seems to be reaching for the laughs, they just show up by virtue of the experience. And that’s what makes Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls ultimately successful: David Sedaris is a man with virtue, but he’s not above his own petty feelings, too, which lets us both laugh at and with him.
LET’S EXPLORE DIABETES WITH OWLS David Sedaris, Little, Brown, 275 pages