A Modest Bestiary
Little, Brown : 176 pp., $21.99
Somewhere, David Sedaris is giggling.
His new collection of short stories — of mice and chipmunks and dogs, of cats and chickens — appear to be fables, but they're not exactly. Because, he says, fables have morals; what he's created is a "modest bestiary," where lessons might not be learned, and a critter meeting a bloody end might not deserve such a cruel fate. And there's Ian Falconer, creator of the bestselling Olivia books for children, drawing pictures of it all.
These cute woodland creatures, rendered so Olivia-like, with chance and disaster and ill intentions lurking in the margins – well, it could be a bit unsettling. Or just as easily, it's wickedly funny.
Sedaris, of course, is one of the country's best-known raconteurs. His distinctive voice and laconic delivery made him perfect for radio, and he worked with public radio producer Ira Glass even before Glass launched his show "This American Life." Sedaris became a regular contributor and one of the show's stars. His radio pieces led to books, which led to twice-yearly speaking tours.
All Sedaris' success has led to a conundrum: His material has gotten less interesting. In earlier days, we heard about his stint as a Macy's Christmas elf, his youthful obsessive behavior (and the mother who plied his teachers with drink, charming them into overlooking it), his failed attempts at performance art. Lately, he's had little more to talk about than shopping for a birthday present for his boyfriend, with whom he lives in France. His personal anecdotes, once edgy and surprising, have become a little safe.
The fuzzy and feathered fauna of his new book provide an escape out of Sedaris' tame bourgeois narrative. And if we recognize the types — a sycophantic Baboon hairdresser, an oblivious Parrot journalist (ouch) — Sedaris is still free to spin the stories off as he likes. It's not his hairdresser, no specific journalist. They're beasts!
In some stories, these creatures have clearly human foibles. "In time she stopped using the word 'pet', as it seemed demeaning," Sedaris writes in "The Mouse and The Snake." "The term 'to own' was banished as well, as it made it sound as though she were keeping him against his will, a firefly trapped in a jar. 'He's a reptile companion,' she took to saying, and thus, in time, he became her only companion." There is a satiric intent to this story, not at all masked; there are a handful of others too that hit the small twitching nose a little too directly.
But that does provide some grounding for the collection , which, more often than not, spins into territories equally human but less easily categorized. Who between the dating squirrel and chipmunk, so adorably rendered on the cover, is the more deluded? Is the best part of "The Migrating Warblers" how it shows longtime couples' interactions, how annoying American travelers can be, or silly wordplay? Who suffers in "The Parenting Storks"? Is "The Faithful Setter" about fidelity or something else, revealed in its last paragraph?
Because Sedaris has such a distinctive voice — which he brings, economically, to the page — it is entirely likely when you read a David Sedaris book you will, like me, hear his voice in your head. If you buy the three-CD set of "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk" ($24.98, Hachette Audio), you will hear Sedaris for real, along with the voice of Elaine Stritch and a specially written orchestration. While audio books often fall short of the original, this one is its match.
Simple moralizing is what we expect from fables, but in "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk," a comeuppance might get turned, and turned again, until the end seems at strange angles to the beginning. These are some of Sedaris' best stories — those with twists that are improper or even nasty.
The imbalance of good and evil feels contemporary, unlike the sanitized fairy tales we've grown used to in popular culture. This mix — of not-nice with playful and predictable — keeps the collection surprising. The animals have given Sedaris' humor some new teeth: tiny and sharp, and sometimes even ready to draw blood.