How does David Sedaris make us laugh? His carefully honed persona is 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.
Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls gathers more than two dozen of his pieces from The New Yorker and other publications. Most focus on his youth in the United States or on his more recent experiences abroad.
In many 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 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, the saga of his search for a stuffed owl to give his longtime partner, Hugh “the best Valentine’s Day gift ever.” The search is surprisingly difficult; he has been trying to acquire one for years but has found it’s illegal in many places for taxidermists to mount them. But 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?)
The book also includes several short essays written in the voices of characters who are not Sedaris. 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.
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.
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.
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 reviewed this book for The Tampa Bay Times.