HAPPY-GO-LUCKYWritten by David Sedaris
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In the past five years, David Sedaris published seven books – two collections of articles; two daily anthologies, both over 500 pages; visual compendium of diary; An e-book version of an article. Can an eponymous perfume be so elusive? (“Se-boldness. for the imp in you. “)
Depending on your point of view, this attack might strike you—especially given that Sedaris likes to revisit the scenarios he’s already written about—as either exaggerated or exhilarating. I fall into the latter camp, partly because ‘retain’ is just a word for me, and partly because I think the essential characteristic of literary classics is that it is so textured that one can re-read it and usually find something new.
Sedaris’ latest collection “Calypso” practically destroyed me. Between the accounts of his troubled sister Tiffany, who committed suicide, and the tales of his father, who had been envious and mischievous for Sedaris all his life, I have been in tears four times. I laughed a lot and laughed once with a shell. Most contemporary comic essay writers have polished their power of self-deprecation into grueling, sometimes stressful lasers, but Sedaris is often willing to apply the same level of scrutiny to other people, too — and to do so without being bad. For readers, this can be fun, and exciting at times, which is certainly part of what makes Sedaris’ work such a deceptive suspense. Whether detail How he loved his father, Lou, to eat the food he hid around the house until it rotted, or to go to the homeless people of Portland, Sedaris dispenses with standards you can’t say like a little ant-burning boy with a magnifying glass.
In my favorite kind of Sedaris essay—the kind I will continue to read—the author takes an unusual or taboo topic, such as death or incontinence, and then shows us how a group of flawed characters including himself revolve around it; But then, in the last paragraph or paragraph, he unleashes a tenderness or humanity that surprises you. Take the new collection’s show “Hurricane Season,” set mostly in Sedaris and friend Hugh’s North Carolina beach homes, on how spending time with our families can make us re-examine our relationships with our partners. Sedaris knows that his siblings are sometimes delayed by Hugh: each of them, at some point, asked Sedaris, “What is problem?“Hugh, the guardian of morals and tradition among the Sedarii bending unbridled eyes, is not afraid to inflict or apply punishment when someone wears a fluffy coat to the dinner table, or calls out his rickety chairs, or feeds candy ants. (Sedaris, the candy-maker wrote,” Gretchen patted my hand Don’t listen to Hugh. He doesn’t know. [expletive] About being an ant.”) But at the end of the article we found Hugh, after Hurricane Florence destroyed one of his homes and his house, hiding in the bedroom, crying, face in his hands, and shoulders shivering. We learn that three of the homes Hugh grew up in have also been destroyed. At such moments, the Sedaris have no jurisdiction: “They see me scolded from time to time, and I shut down my house, but where are they in the dark rooms when a close friend dies or rebels storm the embassy? When does the wind get hard and the flood waters rise? When you realize you’re going to offer Anything to get that other person to stop hurting, if only so he can rip your head off again?”
Happy-Go-Lucky has fewer of these beautifully crafted jewel cases than Calypso. However, in addition to being consistently funny, it has some festive Sedaris for all those who celebrate. We get a ostensible solution for Sedaris and a lifelong grudge match for his father when Lou tells David, “I won.” We get live moments where Lou’s will and Tiffany’s accusations of sexual assault appear; Sedaris admits he’s offering to pay a 24-year-old shop clerk to have his teeth fixed, long ago starting a bizarre intergenerational moment while wearing underwear that had cut her back. We also get the one really offensive thing, as far as I know, that Sedaris ever wrote: “I can’t stand watching my sisters get old. It just looks tough. They were all such beauties.”
Some of the pieces in “Happy-Go-Lucky” feel transitional, as if Sedaris, having already earned his place as a historian of broken families and eccentric enthusiasm, is casting his network more broadly by addressing societal issues. This is a promising direction, but I missed Sedaris’ personal relationship to the topics of guns and school shooting in an article on those topics. Likewise, his essentially Gothic flair, when applied to an ongoing crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, can yield statements faintly spouted from cabbage. (“The terrible shame about the pandemic in the United States is that over 800,000 people have died so far, and I haven’t been able to pick one of them.”)
But when you’re dealing with a talent as great as that of Sedaris, the hiccups are somewhat negligible — much like the author’s unusual ideas about how to cover the lower body. I’m not referring to his traditional underpants, but rather to his tendency to wear a nightgown known as culottes in public. Let’s be honest here: This could be a lot worse. It can be jeggings. Maybe mirkin. Instead, the lasting impression of “Happy-Go-Lucky” is similar to that found in other Sedaris books: it’s a neat trick that a writer’s preoccupation with the grotesque and inappropriate can have such widespread appeal. As Sedaris once replied to a store employee who asked him if he was looking for anything special when shopping for gifts, “Grotesque is a plus.”
HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, by David Sedaris | 259 p. | Little Brown | $29
Henry Alford is the author of six books, including, most recently, And Then We Danced.
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