By Miriam R. Kramer
In the last twenty-five years the writer David Sedaris has gained what could oddly be called a mainstream cult following not only in the United States, Canada, and other English-speaking countries, but also all over the world. After starting out reading essays on NPR in the 1990s, Sedaris continued with books such as Barrel Fever, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and Calypso. With his extensive book tours followed by long, conversational book signings, he has even made his self-promotion fun and collaborative. We long-time readers consider ourselves honorary members of his family, who are often the subject of his satirical essays. So where has his mordant wit taken us in Happy-Go-Lucky, his most recent release?
In this case, you should judge a book by its cover. Happy-Go-Lucky features a shudder-inducing clown and cheerful little girl on its book jacket and even in its electronic versions. The cover is peak Sedaris. He has always been interested in the unusual and freakish aspects of human nature, and somehow makes them acceptable and accessible to a mass audience. His public follows his lead in enjoying, or at least experiencing, a frisson of weirdness and distaste from looking at the bizarre. In this book, he takes a sobering look at life in the pandemic and late middle age, but leavens it with the appreciation of the absurd and grotesque, along with the superficial lightness that gilds much of his work.
With the recent publications of his two collections of diary entries, Theft by Finding and A Carnival of Snackery, he allowed readers to trace the evolution of his writing from 1977 to 2020. Sedaris is no longer the edgy young New York City writer who lives downtown and cleans houses or moves furniture to support his writing. He has not been that in a long time. You could say that with his residences in England, New York City, and North Carolina, he is now fully encapsulated in an upscale bubble that prevents him from ever becoming more practical.
If Sedaris has a target demographic, it is a middle-class, liberal-educated audience that has grown older and more affluent with him. While commercially successful, it never seems like he has written according to a commercial formula. We see other people through his cock-eyed, sharp, and yet often child-like vision. He never virtue-signals, or at least without realizing that he is doing it, and examines his own foibles and frustrations with the same ease that he does everyone else’s. He used to write in a heady, hilarious, and more stylized way, such as in the classic Me Talk Pretty One Day. Now he makes it easier for his readers to commiserate with his viewpoints by exaggerating less and showing more vulnerability.
The state of the world comes in for more scrutiny these days in his writing. Sedaris discusses how he pays attention to politics differently in the post–Donald Trump era. He takes a bemused look at gun culture in the United States, discussing the time he went for a one-time shooting and gun safety lesson with his sister, Lisa, right before the Sandy Hook school shooting. When I read this chapter, I noted that Happy-Go-Lucky was released a week after the Uvalde mass murder. As he points out, “every school shooting is different but the same. We see the news footage, the crying children, the flowers and teddy bears in a pile getting rained on. There are reports that the community is ‘healing,’ and then it’s on to the next one.” I wonder how many new mass shootings will have taken place by the time this book review is published. Three? Four?
He and his partner, Hugh Hamrick, buy an apartment in New York City and start settling in as the pandemic arrives. Sedaris writes about the eeriness of walking miles at night across Manhattan seeing no one, and of the uproar of protests and marches there after the George Floyd murder, many sponsored by young white people taking selfies. He dips into the past, remembering what it was like to grow up gay in North Carolina after meeting a gay teenager in France. Hugh, his partner, comes in for his own session of David’s scrutiny for his temper and occasional crabbiness. In the process, the audience sees Hugh, with Sedaris’s knowledge, as a foil to his own sometimes childish and needy self, a flawed but much-beloved boyfriend. Hugh always comes off as the sober grown-up in the relationship.
As usual, David’s siblings are showcased. He shops for bizarre fashions and grotesque objets d’art with the hilarious Amy Sedaris, known in her own right for her comedic acting, appreciation for absurdity, and improvisations. He meets his sisters Lisa and Gretchen, along with his brother Paul, at the Sea Section, a beach house he bought for the family in North Carolina. If you have been reading Sedaris all along, you will be back on familiar terrain, virtually taking part in another Sedaris family summer vacation on Emerald Isle, perhaps participating in their annual tanning contest.
Yet now, even during beloved get-togethers, David looks back with a touch of melancholy, thinking of his sisters getting older, his mother’s absence, the missing piece in his sibling circle caused by the suicide of his sister, Tiffany. He pieces together her mental illness with her unusual circumstances as a rebellious figure growing up, trying to find some way of solving her puzzle.
David’s father, Lou, emerges as perhaps the central figure, other than David himself, in this work. In earlier works, David mentions his father and his tightness with money, love for jazz, initial rejection of his homosexuality, and other very odd characteristics, but never dwells on his own relationship with his dad. His father’s highly anti-social way of dealing with the world, along with his children, comes to the fore for the first time.
As his father moves into assisted living and eventually passes away, David mentions how his father softened and became so much kinder in his last year of life. In Happy-Go-Lucky he has changed from the father who always undermined David, comparing him unfavorably to other siblings in public at art shows and college graduations, voting against gay rights, and even cutting him out of his will in a way that was supposed to be a surprise after his death. As a longtime Sedaris reader, until now I never knew quite how mean his father could be, trying to set his children against one another, short-changing contractors, monitoring his daughters’ weight and looks, and becoming over time a hoarder with probable mental issues.
One of the passages in this book that struck me was the sweeter Lou saying “David…You’ve accomplished so many fantastic things in your life. You’re, well…I want to tell you…you won.” Sedaris ponders his statement, thinking “I couldn’t tell if he meant ‘You won’ as in ‘You won the game of life,’ or ‘You won over me, your father, who told you—assured you when you were small and then kept reassuring you—that you were worthless.’ Whichever way he intended those two faint words, I will take them and, in doing so, throw down this lance I’ve been hoisting for the past sixty years. For I am old myself now, and it is so very, very heavy.”
So know that while you will read the usually funny, often vulgar, and seriously skewed musings from David Sedaris, you will also touch on a writer in the early autumn of his life, looking at his aging family and an uncertain future with melancholy, along with his unique, peculiar sense of wonder at human behavior.