Book review: Scenes from the 'realish' life of David Sedaris


NEWSDAYMay 5, 2013 

  • ' LET'S EXPLORE DIABETES WITH OWLS' by David Sedaris; Little, Brown and Co. ($27)

Being funny has made David Sedaris a well-off man.

It can be gauche, sometimes unethical, to mention this sort of thing. Review the book, critics are told, not the author or the sales figures. But Sedaris' success has become an unavoidably integral part of his work. Each bestseller lands him a new book tour, flies him to a new vacation spot, delivers him to a new home. And in each new place he can again observe the foibles within himself and others that made him arguably America's best-known humor writer. Nearly two decades since his debut collection, "Barrel Fever," he's become the closest thing the genre has to a perpetual motion machine.

"Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls," his eighth book, is studded with stories in which Sedaris is a victim of brand-new circumstance. With each milieu he parachutes into, he's overpowered by a sense of surprise, disgust or frustration. Here he is in Australia - "Canada in a thong, or that's the initial impression." There he is in irredeemably unhygienic China, where the service grade in the window of one restaurant is "a smiley face with the smile turned upside down." And here he is in England, where his new home in the verdant countryside is overwhelmed with trash.

This wide-eyed guy named David is a cultivated persona, to be sure - he's responded to accusations of massaging details about his personal life by saying his pieces are "realish." But one reason Sedaris' work has remained so effective and so funny is that his emotional responses, a blend of flintiness and compassion, remain unvarnished. His style of humor blunts sentiment and replaces it with a gallows humor that finds unlikely comedy in taxidermied human heads and attempted assault.

Sedaris' family, the drivetrain of so many of his funniest pieces, is still around: His father remains as hardheaded as ever, easing up only slightly to insist that David get a colonoscopy.

But his childhood stories now focus more on his own shortcomings than those of his parents or siblings.

The job of being David Sedaris, successful humor writer, means forever making gestures toward growing up but never quite pulling it off. Send him to the dentist, to Costco, to South Korea, and he'll come back with a story about how he can't muster up the requisite adult demeanor in any of those places. But the job demands that he try. In the British countryside, he's so repulsed by the rubbish spoiling the landscape that he's motivated to do roadside trash pickup by himself. "What did my life consist of before this?" he writes, mocking himself. "Surely there was something I was devoted to?"

As if he doesn't know the answer. Then and now, he's writing. And with each scrap he picks up - be it a stray potato-chip bag or a Hawaii vacation - he's gathered that much more fodder for another funny book.

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