David Sedaris, my imaginary friend
When a friend gets rich and famous and moves to Paris, then prattles on about the nutty things that French dentists say, that’s grounds for never speaking to that person again. When the friend in question is an imaginary friend and his name is David Sedaris, such indiscretions are not only forgiven but embraced wholeheartedly.
If there’s ever been an author who is consistently forgiven for his trespasses, it’s David Sedaris. In “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls,” everyone’s favorite imaginary friend has abandoned France for the English countryside, where his life of leisure is only occasionally interrupted by sojourns to China, Australia and Japan. These sorts of indulgences might give your average personal essayist writer’s block. After all, how do you describe having your laptop stolen in Hawaii or purchasing property in West Sussex and evoke the same relatable pathos and longing that you conjured as a confused gay kid growing up middle class in North Carolina?
But Sedaris pulls it off, not only by throwing in plenty of fresh stories about his youth but also by adhering closely to the emotional heart of each tale. Whether he’s unearthing the ribald humor of Amtrak bar cars or analyzing the condescending political attitudes of the French, there’s always an unexpected moment of poignancy or a forlorn bit of melancholy in the mix.
Even an initially disturbing tale of scooping baby sea turtles off the beach eventually leads Sedaris to reflect on trying to fit in with his peers as a kid. Here, as with so many of the essays in Sedaris’ six previous bestselling collections, the glory is in the heartbreaking details: Shaun, conspirator in baby-sea-turtle-napping, is one of Sedaris’ only male friends, so he spends a lot of time mimicking Shaun’s behavior and trying to win his approval.
“Is this how a normal boy would swing his arms?” he later wonders in front of his parents’ full-length mirror. “Is this how he’d laugh? Is this what he would find funny?” Later, when his father takes him to a football game, he worries, “Which team am I supposed to care about?” and “How should I react if somebody scores a point?”
Finally, Sedaris compares the hopeless sea turtles, “unhappily dragging themselves across [his] bedspread,” to himself. “All they’d ever wanted was to live in the ocean — that was it, their entire wish list, and instead I’d decided they’d be better off in my bedroom. Just as my dad had decided that I’d be better off at the football game.”
If you browse media coverage of Sedaris without reading his work, you might get the impression that he writes kooky little tales about his misspent youth. In fact, the author is a remarkably skilled storyteller and savvy essayist. He weaves together vivid images and sensations — the medicinal smell of his father’s gin, the swampy funk of the sea turtles’ aquarium, the way the turtles shells started to soften — into a coherent whole that packs a serious emotional punch. By the time we find out that the turtles perished and Shaun’s father drank himself to death, we are firmly ensconced in a bittersweet world of Sedaris’ making.
Although he has been criticized for embellishing his stories with entertaining exaggerations, Sedaris remains a trustworthy narrator primarily because he never shies away from offering up his deepest shame and mortification for our perusal, whether that involves envying Donny Osmond (when his father praises Osmond lavishly) or living in mortal fear of his upcoming colonoscopy.
Even his tale about exploring a delightful taxidermy shop in London has less to do with the dead animals themselves (and Pygmy heads and severed arms!) and more to do with the author’s embarrassment at being fascinated by such grotesqueries. And when he and his partner, Hugh, acquire property in the England countryside, the idyllic setting soon gives way to Sedaris’ growing obsession with hunting down every bit of stray litter in the surrounding area. In another chapter, the author confesses his revulsion toward the native habit of loudly spitting (anywhere and everywhere) in China. Plenty of authors have strange and wonderful stories to tell, but few are brave enough to tell their stories with such a robust mix of outrage and self-flagellation.
Not surprisingly, the satirical interstitials in “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls” constitute its weakest chapters. It’s not that Sedaris’ absurd, first-person rants written from the perspectives of Christian fundamentalists, homophobic conservatives and lonely teenage tourists aren’t funny, it’s just that they turn the start of each chapter into a distracting game: Is this one Sedaris or a character he invented? And how can we not prefer our imaginary friend to his imaginary enemies? Sedaris has a singular knack for transforming trivial anecdotes into moving treatises on the quest for connection and sanity in a world gone mad.
That said, he has more than earned the right to experiment. He can indulge himself all he wants — in fictional soliloquies, in obsessive rubbish-gathering, in stuffed-owl coveting, in extended journeys across the globe — and we’ll wait patiently for more. Yes, David Sedaris really is that good. And, based on this latest collection, he’s getting only better.
Havrilesky is a Bookforum columnist and author of the memoir “Disaster Preparedness.”
Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls
Little Brown and Co.: 288 pp., $27
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