Sometimes when I'm reading a book by David Sedaris (and laughing my head off), I wonder how he does it. His carefully honed persona is, after all, snarky, petty, vindictive, judgmental and colossally self-absorbed — so why do so many fans love him?
A possible answer emerges in his new essay collection: He's the first to admit what an ass he can be — and under all that snark lies an often tender heart.
Bearing another of Sedaris' non sequitur titles, Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls gathers more than two dozen of his pieces from the New Yorker and other publications. Most focus either on his youth in the United States or on his more recent experiences abroad.
In many of these essays, Sedaris is an outsider, observing and commenting. Sometimes he simply says wittily what many of us have thought, as in "Standing By," about airport layovers: "I should be used to the way Americans dress when traveling, yet it still manages to amaze me. It's as if the person next to you had been washing shoe polish off a pig, then suddenly threw down his sponge, saying, 'F--- this. I'm going to Los Angeles!" But that joke blossoms into something more complex, something that shrinks the distance between the observer and the observed.
Sedaris can turn that sharp eye on himself as well, as he does in "Understanding Understanding Owls." (Yes, although there's no diabetes in the book, there are owls.) It's the saga of his search for a stuffed owl to give his longtime partner, Hugh — "the best Valentine's Day gift ever." It's a surprisingly difficult search; he has been trying to acquire one for years but has found it's illegal in many places for taxidermists to mount them. But he and Hugh have just moved to London, and Sedaris finds a taxidermist who will sell him owls — and some other things he really didn't expect. (For what holiday would a preserved human arm be the right gift?)
What really creeps him out, he says, is not being "misread" but read correctly — the taxidermist just somehow knew he'd be fascinated with that Pygmy skeleton, "looked into my soul and recognized me for the person I really am: the type who'd actually love a Pygmy and could easily get over the fact that he'd been murdered for sport, thinking breezily, Well, that was a long time ago." Yet the story ends on an oddly sweet note, as do most of the pieces that are about Hugh.
The book also includes several short essays written in the voices of characters who are not Sedaris. "Think Differenter" starts out sounding a bit like him: "Of the many expressions we Americans tend to overuse, I think the most irritating is 'Blind people are human too.' " But it quickly reveals itself as a monologue by a man who not only is "sick" of blind people (and clearly not Sedaris) but has some interesting opinions about gun laws: "If you don't think a mental patient has a right to bring a sawed-off shotgun to the church where his ex-girlfriend is getting married, you're part of the problem." It's almost too close to real, current discourse to be funny — but not quite.
"Just a Quick E-mail" is an acerbic thank-you note from a bride to someone who gave her pizza coupons as a wedding gift — for what turn out to be some pretty good (and appalling) reasons. Raising self-absorption to dizzying heights, it's reminiscent of the classic "Season's Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!" from Sedaris' 1997 Holidays on Ice.
Those riffs are fun, but the pieces from this book that stick with me most are those about Sedaris' fractious relationship with his father, Lou. In "Standing Still," the two of them join in a futile quest to find a man who attempted to assault David's sister Gretchen on the street. In "Loggerheads," Lou's rough-edged but responsible version of fatherhood deepens the story of one of David's childhood friends whose father is very different.
"Memory Laps" recounts young David's futile attempts to impress his dad with his efforts on a swim team. Instead, Lou praises another boy on the team effusively, leaving his son fuming. "There weren't many people I truly hated back then — thirty, maybe forty-five at most — and Greg was at the top of my list." Later Lou compares his son unfavorably to a fellow Boy Scout, and finally to Donny Osmond.
Decades later, it's still a scar, but one Sedaris has some bittersweet understanding of: "My dad was like the Marine Corps, only instead of tearing you to pieces and then putting you back together, he just did the first part and called it a day. Now it seems cruel, abusive even, but this all happened before the invention of self-esteem, which, frankly, I think is a little overrated."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.