It's hard to pin down precisely the feeling that you get while indulging in the works of David Sedaris. There's that slight discomfort, of course, that comes along with his almost intrusive honesty. Then there's the smoothed-over grin of knowing resulting from a certain black-sheep objectivity inherent to his willy-nilly observations. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there's the blown-gasket, broken-toothed laughter peculiar to the clinically insane that sort of sneaks up on you somewhere in the middle of an essay. An essay?
Regardless, Sedaris is the unwilling rock star of the horn-rimmed, collegiate set, inspiring a cult of followers to devour his every carefully chosen word (thanks largely to his high-profile commentary on NPR). He leads the brigade of memoir-come-lately thirtysomethings pouring sugar onto their twisted childhoods, and has unmistakably opened the floodgates for a new generation of writers without advances.
With the release of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, he only raises the stakes on his claim to the title of Most Fabulous Essayist Ever, dressing his family and personal life down to only the funniest threads of its existence. Where previous bestsellers, Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day, leveled the erudite playing field with hilarious spurts of mischief, Dress offers a more measured -- more fermented, even -- outlook on growing up, growing out, and grinding down the minutiae of life beneath the surface. Largely culled from the already seasoned and seen fruits of intellectual labor previously published in GQ, Esquire and The New Yorker, the book manages to maintain its cohesiveness by sticking to the vague timeline of younger to older. Far from being a typical tell-all, there's no room for sympathy here. Just downcast glances, and telling smirks -- those and the expected consequences of exposing miscellaneous dirty laundry to the reading world.
"She's afraid to tell me anything important," he writes of his sister Lisa in "Repeat After Me," "knowing I'll only turn around and write about it. In my mind, I'm like a friendly junkman, building things from the little pieces of scrap I find here and there, but my family's started to see things differently. Their personal lives are the so-called pieces of scrap I so casually pick up, and they're sick of it."
He does manage to virtually avoid the subject of his slightly famous sister (save a few mentions, like the one following here), Amy ("Strangers with Candy"), fearing that, as she is a celebrity, that kind of talk would be gossip. But the rest are fair game, especially the unconventional meanderings of his mother. When Amy is bitten on the cheek by a caterpillar during a poorly planned vacation, he paints this picture: "My mother drove her to the hospital, and when they returned she employed my sister as Exhibit A, pointing as if this were not her daughter but some ugly stranger forced to share our quarters."
Candy of a different kind (or perhaps the same) draws Sedaris to a peculiar observation on rural North Carolina newbie neighbors, the Tomkeys, in "Us and Them." Halloween was predictably always a favorite in the Sedaris household of peculiar psychological extremity, and the unbearable fact that the out-of date naives next door didn't quite understand that it could only happen on one certain day each year elicits a quizzical guffaw from the hyper-aware scribe. "I attributed their behavior to the fact that they didn't have a TV, but television didn't teach you everything," he writes. "Asking for candy on Halloween was called trick-or-treating, but asking for candy on November first was called begging, and it made people uncomfortable. This was one of the things you were supposed to learn simply by being alive, and it angered me that the Tomkeys did not understand it."
Overall, though, Sedaris employs his particular brand of social empathy throughout with a quiet credo of "Who am I to judge?". The events speak for themselves. And even when, as a housekeeper, he is confronted by the advances of a masturbating diabetic anxious to test his blood sugar (say that 10 times fast), Sedaris' even hand sticks to its dusting. "How terrible it is to be wrong," he writes, "to go out on a limb and make an advance that isn't reciprocated. I thought of the topless stay-at-home wife, opening the door to the gay UPS driver, of all of those articles suggesting you surprise that certain someone by serving dessert in the nude or offering up an unexpected striptease. They never tell you what to do should that someone walk out of the room or look at you with that mix of disgust and pity that ten, twenty, fifty years later will still cause you to burn every time you think about it."
With Sedaris on your side, you can at least be assured that it will burn brightly.
- With the release of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, David Sedaris only raises the stakes on his claim to the title of Most Fabulous Essayist Ever.