Sedariss stories are as funny as ever, but his diary-essays also confront tragedy, politics and depression
Theres nobody quite like David Sedaris. Hes been likened to an American Alan Bennett, or an evil Garrison Keillor, but neither is precisely right: his collections of wry, sidelong diary-essays (there isnt a label for what he does; hes the lone inhabitant of a category of his own invention) have sold in their millions around the world, and his regular TV and radio appearances and sell-out reading tours have garnered him legions of fans. Devotees are well acquainted by now with the wider Sedaris clan His smart, adoring, yarn-spinning mother, who died in 1991; his father, distant and reactionary (a man who laughs appreciatively at such bumper stickers as DONT BLAME ME, I VOTED FOR THE AMERICAN) though softening at the edges as he ages; his clutch of wayward, wise-cracking siblings, against whom he measures himself, and on whom he relies. Theyre the animating force behind his writing; the wellspring of his humour, the source of his grace.
Calypso, Sedariss 10th collection, is, more emphatically than ever, a family affair. The action revolves around the Sea Section, an oceanfront cottage on the North Carolina coast that Sedaris and his husband, Hugh, purchased in order to realise his childhood dream that one day I would buy a beach house and it would be everyones, as long as they followed my draconian rules and never stopped thanking me for it. The Sedarises gather and regather there: for Thanksgivings and summer vacations. Between confidences shared, board games played and sunscreen slathered, the anecdotes pile up. The time Sedaris and his sister Lisa went for an evening walk on the beach and then couldnt work out which house was theirs; the spectacle of his brother Paul living out his midlife crisis via juicing (Everything goes into his Omega J8006 kale, carrots, celery, some kind of powder scraped off the knuckles of bees); the occasion on which Sedaris fed the benign tumour, removed by a surgeon who had aattended one of his readings, to a turtle (yes, thats right).
Through disarmingly frank descriptions of their collective idiosyncrasies, vulgarities and charms, he conjures the sort of warts-and-all closeness that family alone can offer, and to feel yourself a part of that is as beguiling an experience as ever. But while the surface of this collection glitters just as brightly as the others, the shadows that swarm the depths are darker. Questions of ageing and mortality hover, and as life moves forward and the tragedies pile up, it turns out there are some things its impossible to play for laughs. For all its warmth and wit, Calypso is a rawer, jaggeder, sadder book than its predecessors, and one in which, for the first time, Sedaris appears to pull the curtain back; to show us where, behind the illusion of intimacy, the levers are located, and how they are being pulled.
First, though, Sedaris reinducts us into his universe in the collections opening piece, Company Man, in which he tackles the indignities of mid-life with gusto. Confronted with his opening gambit that there are few real joys to middle age. The only perk I can see is that, with luck, youll acquire a guest room, its impossible not to relax: to snort in recognition at his observations, so conspiratorially delivered; to understand, from the combination of pith and perfect timing, that youre in the hands of a comic master. Theres something, too, about his writing that flatters his readers: the confiding tone; the approachable intelligence; his trick of exposing and then skewering his foibles and thus allowing us to feel better about our own. Its hard not to feel smug by the end of the first piece. We may be navigating the seas of mid-life ourselves (his fans are apparently ageing with him), but at least were reading Sedaris while were doing it.
All, then, is as it should be until the first line of the second piece, when he sharply pulls the rug from under us. In late May 2013, he writes, a few weeks shy of her fiftieth birthday, my youngest sister, Tiffany, committed suicide. Its a bald, brutal admission, delivered without decoration (though not without care: look at the way the sentence itself constitutes an act of dramatic withholding, delivering the gut-punch of suicide only in the final clause) and its jolt is all the more destabilising for coming in the wake of the light, familiar wit of the opening essay. Tiffanys suicide, and the questions it raises, are unequivocally the subjects of this volume, and a lesser author wouldnt have had the chops to keep them back until chapter two. But in doing so, Sedaris gives us a shock that is an echo of the way in which the news intruded into his congenial, guest-room-rich life. A person expects his parents to die, he reflects. But a sibling? I felt Id lost the identity Id enjoyed since 1968.