After 25 years and nine essay collections, after publishing 500 pages of his own diary, the most shocking thing David Sedaris can do is reveal that he’s been holding things back.
In the last few pages of his new essay collection, “Calypso,” he deploys a killer anecdote that most attention cravers would use up on a first date. In 1968, Sedaris’s parents had just moved to Raleigh, N.C., and were eating at an oyster bar when the news came that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. Everyone in the restaurant — except the Sedarises — burst into applause. “Our family hadn’t been in the South very long, and that was a real eye-opener.”
Sedaris, now 61, was saving this tale, perhaps, for this darker chapter, when his life, his writing and the world he sees around him have become a touch crueler and more shocking. Politically, he finds himself back in that restaurant, suddenly aware of and appalled by what the diners around him were cheering for. But he is also personally hurting, and he lets that affect the arch humor and absurdity he’s built his career on. He’s still someone who makes his thoughts amusing for millions of people, but his thoughts have changed.
His observations have gotten crueler. In his book he writes about watching hours of the reality-TV show “Intervention,” and his response is to mock the letters written by distraught interveners. They “often cry,” he quips, “perhaps because what they’ve written is so poorly constructed.” Elsewhere he writes that when his sisters are visiting, he has to go off by himself, fearing that the family’s uninterrupted togetherness might ruin their time together. “Perhaps I worried that if I didn’t wander off, my family would get on my nerves or — far more likely — I would get on theirs, and that our week together wouldn’t be as ideal as I’d told myself it would be.”
Sedaris is practically his own genre now. You probably already know whether you like his wry, well-shaped, almost-true stories from his own life. Even if he’s able to arrange his circumstances more or less exactly as he wants them — divided among Sussex, England; Emerald Isle, N.C.; and traveling for work — he finds things that needle him anyway, like how people talk to you when they sell you things in airports.
“You’ll lay a magazine upon the counter and be asked by the cashier, ‘Do you need some water to go with that?’ This will be said as if the two things should not really be sold separately, as if in order to properly read a copy of Us Weekly you’ll have to first rinse your eyes out with a four-dollar bottle of Evian.”
Sedaris is fascinated and repelled by people, but he needs them around to feed his clever misanthropy. Sometimes his antics seem as if they were cultivated just for the story he would share about them later, like the time he goes out into the night after a book signing with a fan who has offered to remove a growth from his side. “How do I know she was a doctor? She told me she was.”
But Sedaris’s most fruitful subject, as it has been for years, is his family. It is the source of both his best humor and his deepest pathos.
When something pains Sedaris the most, he shuts down his fabulous voice and lets the stark events unfold with practically no comment, prompting readers to go back and make sure we read that horrible detail correctly — for example, that he really did ask a security guard to shut the door in the face of his emotionally disturbed sister when she came to see him after a reading.
Several essays touch upon the suicide of that sister, Tiffany, who has been a character in Sedaris’s work for decades. The essay “Why Aren’t You Laughing?” delves into his memories of his alcoholic mother, both when she was sober and when she was drunk. Sedaris remembers her holding court with her kids, a model for his future career: “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 to where she wanted it. The line she wished she’d delivered in response would become the line she had delivered. We’d be on the sidelines, aghast: ‘That’s not how it happened at all!’ But what did it matter with such great results?” This line doubles as a rejoinder to the criticism Sedaris has received for selling what he calls “realish” stories as nonfiction.
At a question-and-answer session after a reading at the Kennedy Center in April, a fan asked about Sedaris’s father, who appears in many essays. Sedaris’s answer was off the cuff: He replied in a friendly tone that his father had fallen in the past week and afterward had lost some words and confused his daughter with his wife.
It was jarring, after the fun and funny time we’d had, to hear Sedaris report someone else’s personal details in front of a huge audience. Without the craft or consideration that goes into writing, or the essayist’s implied promise that this will be meaningful, it felt like we’d been handed an old man’s dignity for our own entertainment. Or maybe Sedaris’s, since he also mentioned that he likes to tell audiences that he has broken up with his husband (he hasn’t) to get the shocked reaction.
But it was also perversely generous, to be granted this strange intimacy in person, as if we were really his friends. Whether it’s a compulsion or a decision, Sedaris isn’t holding back anymore.
Rachel Manteuffel is an editorial aide in The Washington Post’s Editorial department.
By David Sedaris
Little, Brown. 272 pp. $28