DRESS YOUR FAMILY IN
CORDUROY AND DENIM
By David Sedaris
Little, Brown. 257 pp. $24.95
It's true that David Sedaris has never altered his basic shtick: short essays recounting details from the author's personal, professional and -- most of all -- family life. Most of them run the length of five- or 10-minute radio readings, which is often how they originally took shape. They all come bearing the same broad moral: However much you strain to swathe yourself in the illusion of dignity, however fondly you imagine yourself propelled by your panache and confidence, life will find some way to embarrass you.
It's a formula, sure, but it bears repeating, both because it's the sort of lesson we folly-ridden humans never fully learn and because Sedaris is a complete master of the form. After all, no one complained when Nolan Ryan struck out his 5,000th batter or when Dizzy Gillespie launched into his umpteenth rendition of "A Night in Tunisia." So if the material of "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim" feels a bit familiar to readers of earlier Sedaris collections such as "Barrel Fever" and "Me Talk Pretty One Day," they are well advised simply to succumb. You've been here before, but you won't laugh any less hard, or shake the uncomfortable sense that Sedaris, like all great humorists, is somehow spying on all your own most revealing and private humiliations.
Sedaris sets the tone with another reminiscence about his awkward North Carolina childhood, and his fascination with his new neighbors, the Tomkeys, who did not own a television. The young David took to hanging around the Tomkeys' front lawn so as to collect anthropological intelligence on these curious American specimens: "Because they had no TV, the Tomkeys were forced to talk during dinner. They had no idea how puny their lives were, and so they were not ashamed that a camera would have found them uninteresting. They did know what attractive was or what dinner was supposed to look like or even what time people were supposed to eat." Sedaris gallantly nominated himself to serve as the Tomkeys' informal ambassador to the vast life-shaping sensorium of TV and all that comes with it, albeit "at a distance," since actual "friendship would have taken away their mystery and interfered with the good feeling I got from pitying them."
As you'd expect, his experiment goes awry when the clueless Tomkeys show up trick-or-treating the night after Halloween, compelling Sedaris's disingenuously gracious mother to instruct her kids to cough up their hard-won loot from the previous night's costumed romp. The sheer affront this presents to the childish order of things sends David on a frantic binge of candy-bulimia, which then opens onto a finely wrought explanation of the true nature of TV's appeal -- all in the space of a scant nine or so pages.
So it is with the other 21 short pieces here: hilarious, elegant and surprisingly moving tales of all too ordinary madness. They run the gamut from Sedaris's disastrous efforts to win the friendship of a super-popular high school tormentor to his elaborate relations with his adult siblings. Nor does Sedaris's own budding celebrity offer any respite. One of this collection's strongest pieces, "Chicken in the Henhouse," reconstructs an awful stop on a speaking tour in a college town an hour north of Manchester, N.H. He's stuck in a basement-level hotel room; the airline has lost his luggage. So in a spirit of truly miserable wallowing, Sedaris (who is gay) takes to listening to hard-right talk radio, then abuzz with the Boston priest abuse scandal. "When the priest angle had been exhausted," he writes, "the discussion filtered down to pedophilia in general and then, homosexual pedophilia, which was commonly agreed to be the worst kind. It was, for talk radio, one of those easy topics, like tax hikes or mass murder. 'What do you think of full-grown men practicing sodomy on children?'
" 'Well, I'm against it!' This was always said as if it were somehow startling, a minority position that no one had yet dared lay claim to. . . . The host would congratulate the caller on his or her moral fortitude, and wanting to feel that approval again, the person would rephrase his or her original statement, freshening it up with an adverb or qualifier. 'Call me old-fashioned, but I just hugely think it's wrong.' "
On this grim New England day a caller named Audrey -- who coined the less than apt aphorism of the essay's title to describe the homosexual menace in the schools -- patiently explains to her host that "these homosexuals can't reproduce themselves, and so they go into the schools and try to recruit our young people." This provokes from Sedaris the churlish, shouted reply: "Nobody recruited me, Audrey. And I begged for it!" He goes on to conclude, as only the obsessively irritated can, that this whole fiasco of a trip is Audrey's doing: "It was her fault I was stuck in a basement room with no luggage, her and all the people just like her: the satisfied families trotting from the parking lot to the first-floor restaurant, the hotel guests with whirlpool baths and rooms overlooking the surrounding forest. Why waste the view on a homosexual? . . . And a suitcase? Please! We all know what they do with those."
Sedaris is, needless to say, on course for another rendezvous with social embarrassment, an adult version of his Tomkey candy rampage that will dress down his phobias, presumptions and hauteurs in world-class fashion. But I won't spoil it by describing anything further. In fact, I'm done here. Do yourself a favor and rush out to read the damn book for yourself. It's already shaping up to be a summer starved for good laughs and, familiar though they may seem, you'll find few better than the ones on offer in "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim."