by David Sedaris
Little, Brown. 259 pages, $28.
OF COURSE the book is funny; it’s by David Sedaris. We’ve known this about Sedaris since the morning of December 23, 1992, when NPR first aired a version of “The Santaland Diaries,” and the world changed, if only a little. We heard a voice that was matter-of-factly, unapologetically gay. Since then, we’ve had more evidence of Sedaris’ comic genius, but also of something more. In addition to our laughter, Sedaris has earned our respect for his skill as a writer and his ability to induce laughter while embedding its source in something more ambivalent.
Calypso has the randomness inherent in any collection of stand-alone pieces, and many are typical humor one-offs: about being short, or proposing marriage to his husband Hugh, or having diarrhea while doing readings. But several of the stories circle back to a few locales and a few themes, and the way they keep turning up, like messy memories and unresolved issues, gives the book a kind of novelistic coherence. The memories and issues concern Sedaris’ family, and the stories often take place at a North Carolina resort house that he bought so he, his siblings, his father, and Hugh could vacation together, in the way that the family used to when they were younger and his long-dead mother was still alive. But there’s a more recent death as well: a few months before their first visit to the house, his youngest sister Tiffany committed suicide. The suicide hovers over the collection, reappearing in several stories, with more details but with no answers, because something like that doesn’t go away.
Sedaris’ approach to this—and in fact his approach to everything he has ever written—is captured in “Company Man,” when he enters in the middle of a conversation between Hugh’s mother and sister:
That same night, after my bath, I overheard [Hugh’s sister] asking, “Well, can’t you make it with camel butter?”
“You can,” Mrs. Hamrick said, “but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
I thought of asking for details—“Make what with camel butter?”—but decided I preferred the mystery.
Preferring the mystery: that’s the constant impulse in his stories. He observes acutely, he describes accurately and cleverly, and he never ever explains away the mystery—not when it’s something as simple as a missed conversation, or as complex as suicide. Especially when dealing with his own family, he describes the most outrageous behavior without ever stopping to wonder why anyone would do such a thing. And his art is stronger for this refusal.
He doesn’t even attempt to explain the mysteries of his own behavior. In “Stepping Out,” he describes how his need to maximize his Fitbit steps takes over his daily routine: “Why is it some people can manage a thing like a Fitbit, while other go off the rails and allow it to rule, and perhaps even ruin, their lives?” That’s as close as he gets to introspection. And as close as he gets to self-deprecation, which is introspection’s twin. Some critics have described Sedaris’ style as self-deprecating, but that seems wrong to me. You can compare the other gay NPR David, the much-missed David Rackoff, who turned the bob and weave of self-deprecation into wryly complex art. You wanted to protect Rackoff, even before he revealed the disease that was going to kill him. Sedaris doesn’t call forth such feelings. He makes no bid for our sympathy. He describes himself almost impersonally and leaves it to you to deprecate or not, as you wish. It may be his Fitbit obsession. It may be the last time he saw his sister Tiffany, when she showed up at the stage door after he had finished a show and he told the security guard to shut the door on her. His sole explanation: “I couldn’t deal with her anymore.”
One thing that struck me as I read the collection for the second time, and read some stories for the fourth or fifth, is the tight construction that underlies Sedaris’ seemingly casual style. For example, the story “A House Divided” is about a trip to the North Carolina beach house for a family Thanksgiving. As Sedaris boards in first class for the flight to Raleigh, a passenger tries to open a stuck overhead compartment and says “This is like Obamacare: broken,” to general laughter. On landing, a flight attendant announces that a winning high school soccer team is on board and asks for applause. No one in first class responds—Sedaris figures that the team couldn’t hear him—and a drunken woman (who “was letting her hair fade from dyed red to gray”) calls them “assholes.” On the ground, he tells Hugh about it, who says “quietly, but not so quietly that I couldn’t hear him, ‘You really should have clapped.’”
They pick up Sedaris’ sister Gretchen, who tells them about a high school friend, Kevin, who was living in a Raleigh park: “it seemed incredible to me that something like this could happen. … Slip too far beneath the surface, and wouldn’t your family resuscitate you with a loan or rehab or whatever it was you needed to get back on your feet?” Which leads inevitably to Tiffany, who had committed suicide six months earlier. Sedaris remembers asking her why she never cleaned her apartment. Her answer—“We poor people don’t have the energy to clean up after ourselves”—puts her in a category that excludes her from her own middle-class family. Once they arrive at the house, David and his sister Lisa take a walk along the beach. Lisa tells him that Tiffany had taken an overdose of Klonopin and put a plastic bag over her head. Sedaris thinks of the plastic bags that have words on them—“loew’s, it might read. Safeway. True value. Does a person go through a number of them before making a selection?” Then Lisa asks him to tie her shoe—her pants are too tight for her to bend—and he is grateful to help a living sister.
As they decide to head home, Sedaris realizes that he doesn’t know how to tell his own house from all the other similar houses on the dark beach. At this moment, in his panic at being lost, he makes the observation that ties the entire story together. Even though the people who lived in these houses are white conservatives who would have laughed along with the Obamacare crack on the plane, “we could have knocked on any of these doors, explained our situation, and received help.” When they finally find their house, they go in and talk about Tiffany some more—Tiffany, who could not ask for or receive help, just as their high school friend Kevin could not. Sedaris ends by once again embracing the mystery, imagining someone on the beach looking at their house “wondering, as we often did ourselves these days, what we had done to deserve all this.”
So this story, with its seemingly shaggy-dog structure of unrelated incidents, in which basically nothing happens, becomes a way to raise questions about who gets to be included on your side and can be helped and who doesn’t and can’t, about how Tiffany and Kevin wound up outside the group that they were born into, about the sister whose shoe you can tie and the one who’s put herself beyond help, about how the Obamacare haters can view you as on their side when you need help, even about whether you cheer for a local soccer team if they can’t hear you. It’s about the dividing lines that control us even though we don’t know why. The title, “A House Divided,” turns Lincoln’s phrase into a joke about the beach house, which Sedaris has divided so that the he and Hugh can be separate from the less desirable family members. But underlying this comic division is the deeper family division, and the story finally restores Lincoln’s meaning of North versus South, a blue-state/red-state conflict that Sedaris re-enacts whenever he returns to North Carolina.
Along with Tiffany, there’s another ghost in this collection—ghosts actually turn up in two stories—whose absence is felt so strongly that it’s a presence: Sedaris’ mother, who died about thirty years earlier. His mother has always loomed large in Sedaris’ mental landscape, unavoidable and mysterious, and has inspired his most emotionally complex stories, with her inexplicable cruelties and even more inexplicable kindnesses, and her unmistakable influence on him. For most of this book, she is glimpsed only briefly, in passing references. But she comes to the fore, devastatingly, in “Why Aren’t You Laughing?” which is about her alcoholism, and how much it destroyed.
The title is Sedaris’ question while Hugh is reading his manuscript and goes for minutes without laughing. It has an echo in the story, as he recalls that, “Sober, she was cheerful and charismatic”: “’I got them laughing’ was a popular line in the stories she’d tell at the end of the day. … Her specialty was the real-life story, perfected and condensed. These take work, and she’d go through half a dozen verbal drafts before getting one where she wanted it.” This could, of course, be self-description, a point reinforced when he describes these sessions as “a master class”: “One of us would tell a story about our day and she’d interject every now and then to give notes. ‘You don’t need all that detail about the bedroom,’ she’d say, or, ‘Maybe it’s best to skip the part about the teacher and just cut to the chase.’” His mother’s example clearly taught him how to get them laughing, and also how to write a story that asks why they aren’t laughing.
This collection marks another evolutionary step in the Sedaris family chronicles. Previously, Sedaris’ father has seemed something of a buffoon, shouting loudly and ignored by everyone, eclipsed by their mother. But, unlike her, he’s still here, now 94, and must be reckoned with. In “The Silent Treatment,” about the silence between father and son, Sedaris recalls that “Growing up, I never got the sense that he particularly liked me. I didn’t feel completely unloved—if the house were on fire he would have dragged me out, though it would have been after he rescued everyone else.” Now, decades later, there is no improvement.
The collection ends with “The Comey Memo,” which is about Sedaris’ father (who, needless to say, watches Fox News and supports Trump). It is specifically about another mystery, his inexplicable stubbornness, as implacable as a geological formation, in choosing to live alone in his old junk-filled house, scrimping pointlessly, using a flashlight to save on electricity. When Sedaris visits, the house is quiet. He fears the worst and, when his father appears, he is “relieved by how relieved I felt,” capturing exactly the ambivalent feelings of a child toward a difficult parent. The collection ends on this impasse. His father gives Sedaris and his sister Amy a few items specially picked from the junk. At the airport, Sedaris throws them in the trash: “It wasn’t where they belonged, necessarily. It was just where they ended up.” Like Tiffany, like everyone else in this amazing collection of stories. Why aren’t we laughing?
Michael Schwartz, a longtime contributor to these pages, is a writer based in Boston.