My first exposure to David Sedaris was an audiobook, not the best medium for experiencing a satirist whose delivery is deadpan and understated. Despite his talent as a Macy’s elf, detailed in his career-launching “Santaland Diaries,” Sedaris is not a natural-born performer like his sister Amy Sedaris, the actress. At readings, he prefers an audience enshrouded in dark, so as not to make eye contact. And he doesn’t ad lib or extrapolate, but simply reads from his books in the low-key, ironic manner, that, for all his success on NPR, works best on the printed page.
Sedaris is a writer, not an orator, but he doesn’t need to be both, despite society’s demand that artists perform on all platforms in the digital age. He sticks to what he does best, which is writing. He doesn’t have a personal website. He’s on Facebook, impersonally, his page managed by his publisher, with occasional visits.
The audiobook left me wanting, but after reading — in print — Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, Sedaris’ new book of essays, I finally understand Sedaris mania, and all the comparisons to Mark Twain and James Thurber don’t seem so far-fetched. Anyone can make us laugh, but the best humorists make us laugh and then want to tell somebody else what we found so funny. That’s Sedaris. And, despite having grown up with a father who wore underwear to the dinner table, Sedaris seems a well-adjusted and genuinely likeable guy.
In 26 essays, he exposes the soft underbelly of hypocrisy and stupidity that flavor contemporary American society, but he skewers gently, without being mean. Even at his most outrageous, as in “I Break for Traditional Marriage,” wherein a heterosexual man upset about gay marriages goes on a crime spree, Sedaris shocks, but shocks affectionately.
Raised in North Carolina, but now living in Europe with his partner of 20 years, Sedaris writes with the bemused detachment of a man dressed in white watching a mudfight at a safe distance. In “Dentists Without Borders,” he ponders why so many Americans see socialized medicine as a disease. “The Canadian plan was likened to genocide, but even worse were the ones in Europe, where patients languished on filthy cots, waiting for aspirin to be invented.”
He then recounts his own experiences with extensive dental treatment in Paris, which he manages to make sound so enjoyable that periodontists everywhere should hire extra staff, stock up on floss and prepare for a run on their services. “They have eaten some mice on skewers,” is the punchline here, and the whole story is Sedaris at his thigh-slapping best, an ordinary slice of life cut and served with the sweet glaze of humor.
Anyone who visited a department store or mall while shopping over the holiday season will understand the title of this collection when Sedaris asks, “Does there come a day in every man’s life when he looks around and says to himself, I’ve got to weed out some of these owls. I can’t be alone in this, can I?”
The gods of retail decided last year that owls were underserved as a decorating motif, and now you can find them on napkins, mugs and trivets — everywhere, it seems, but taxidermied and mounted on your wall. It’s illegal to own a stuffed owl in the United States, but Sedaris, living in Europe, decided to find one for his partner, Hugh, and his search led him to a taxidermy shop in London where he is offered a preserved human arm and a Pygmy skeleton. “I think I’ll just take one of the owls,” Sedaris says, and we think he’s telling the truth here, and not embellishing it to make a good story, but you gotta admit, for a college drop-out from Raleigh, this man has not led a normal life. Did he really give out Costco condoms to teen-agers who showed up to one of his book tours? We presume so, just like we presume he really did once tell a highly accented telemarketer to call him back later so they could talk longer. “The fact was that I’d enjoyed our conversation. The sales part was a little tiresome, but with that behind us, I hoped we could move onto other things, and that listening to him would be like reading the type of book I most enjoy, one about people whose lives are fundamentally different from my own. By this, I mean different in a bad way.”
Sedaris, too, is fundamentally different, in a good way. Collections of humorous essays are often amusing but shallow. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls plumbs the depths of love and family. Happily, it’s also two hoots. A — Jennifer Graham