[10 August 2004]
In the 12 years since his first appearance on National Public Radio, David Sedaris has become a monolithic humorist, selling-out symphonic halls, intermittently appearing on David Letterman’s talk show and collecting his works in one bestseller after the other. His newest anthology, the metaphorically titled Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, continues his sometimes dark, eternally funny, certainly lucrative and always relentless scouring of psyches, family histories and relationships.
The frantic jazz-like riffs with which Sedaris’ early work hummed now take a more standardized refrain, laying down the notes like the well-schooled writer he is becoming. There are hints of a bigger purpose that sprout up in some of the newer pieces, perhaps the vague outline of a history he is recording, albeit filtered through a funhouse mirror. His stories, while always plausibly crafted, accentuate the absurdities that seem to transpire around him with every breath and every step. But, beneath his sardonic wit, linguistically punchy one-liners and spirited eccentricities of individual characters, is an understated melancholy of fallibility, one that lingers under the occasional bluster and side-splitting laughs that make him a perennial bestseller and public radio fundraiser goldmine. This frail intricacy is easy to gloss over, especially when you’re laughing so hard, but it’s there, tucked away in even the funniest of stories.
In his widely hailed debut SantaLand Diaries there is a realization of sadness that inhabits his winter land of the quirky and pathetic: “...you would like to believe everyone is unique and then they disappoint you every time by being exactly the same, asking for the same things, reciting the exact same lines as though they have been handed a script.” The insanely uproarious “You Can’t Kill the Rooster” from Me Talk Pretty One Day, ends with Sedaris’ brother Paul reflectively helping their father battle through a tornado’s aftermath, telling him: “Bitch, I’m here to tell you that it’s going to be all right. We’ll get through this shit, motherfucker, you just wait.”
These underpinnings of sadness and the optimism that maybe things aren’t so bad never appear to be at odds in Sedaris’ work. They seem to have evolved into a symbiotic literary existence, and in his newest gathering of 22 stories this relationship between hilarity and anxiety are infinitely intertwined. The pieces are culled from the likes of G.Q., Esquire, The New Yorker and readings on This American Life, and now collected in one volume make a breezy summer night’s read.
Sedaris’ humor trawls an enormously rich ocean, one that bursts at the surface with life and its ruminations. In the opening round of the book, “Us and Them,” he takes it upon himself to benevolently stalk the neighbors only to turn on them after an outlandish endeavor to Trick or Treat the day after Halloween costs little David some of his candy. In “The Ship Shape,” one of the book’s most poignant tales, dreams of a vacation home leave the family crushed when the father dashes their aspirations: “By the time he’d finished wheedling it down, the house at the beach had become a bar in the basement.”
“Six to Eight Black Men” is quintessential Sedaris, letting cultural differences play out to full comic effect when he not only learns that Santa Claus had served as the Bishop of Turkey, but that the he traverses the land with six to eight black men pretending to kick those of a naughty inclination. The Rooster, as brother Paul has affectionately dubbed himself in a previous volume , gets married (“Rooster at the Hitchin’ Post”) and has a child (“Baby Einstein”).
Sedaris, faced with an impeding movie based on his work, finally addresses the conflicting emotions of having a career partly based on exposing his family’s quirks. “Repeat After Me” retraces a visit with his sister Lisa and her pet blue-fronted Amazon parrot, and allows the writer to question his own intentions: “Your life, your privacy, your occasional sorrow—it’s not like you’re going to do anything with it. Is this the brother I always was, or the brother I have become?” He imagines that maybe the movie continues past the evil brother goading his sister for her soul, and continues with the man talking through the night with the parrot, repeating the same words, “Forgive me. Forgive Me. Forgive Me.”
There is an ebb and flow here, peaks of hilarity and valleys of sorrow that continually roll into one another leaving Sedaris’ work with the heft of longevity. Words are not so readily dismissed when they turn their inner workings out to the reader. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is Sedaris’ most settled collection, a mature reflection of not only who he was, but who he is.
So much critical ink has pointlessly been spilled trying to shoehorn David Sedaris into an overcrowded basket of familiar literary forbearers, that the comparisons have started to leak into geographic realms. The ceaseless litany of associations have included Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, Fran Lebowitz, Oscar Wilde, James Thurber, Woody Allen, Walter Mitty, S. J. Perelman, Andy Rooney, Garry Shandling, Robert Benchley, Flannery O’Connor, Holden Caufield and the country of China. No one seems willing to compare David Sedaris to the one he and his writing bare the most striking resemblance to: himself.