David Sedaris, quirky darling of NPR and live readings everywhere, is back. Fans of his deceptively simple but meticulously observed stories and commentary will not be disappointed with "Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls," though traditionalists, conservatives and the squeamish may find this volume rough going. As usual.
The "Etc." in the title refers to six pieces that are clearly not autobiographical. (There is also a final poem, about dogs.) Mr. Sedaris explains in a foreword that he wrote them to be recited by teenagers at forensics competitions, though that would take a certain amount of chutzpah. Three are broadly comic monologues, and the other three ("If I Ruled the World," "I Break for Traditional Marriage" and "Health-Care Freedoms and Why I Want My Country Back") are no-holds-barred satires of right-wing rants Mr. Sedaris has evidently heard on talk radio.
"LET'S EXPLORE DIABETES WITH OWLS: ESSAYS, ETC."
By David Sedaris
Little, Brown ($27).
No-holds-barred is more or less Mr. Sedaris' stock in trade, but his writing is so skillful that the unfiltered presentation is more likely to induce laughter than a wince. He leaves his vitriolic screeds to created characters who are clearly not him -- women, fathers -- and the majority of essays, written in the voice of the David Sedaris persona, are almost childlike in their simplicity and tone. He comes across as a gentle if slightly feckless and neurotic soul who just hasn't bothered to attach the filters most of us have permanently affixed, at least in public.
After the kerfuffle around his most famous pieces, about his stint as a Macy's elf at Christmastime and how much he may have exaggerated and embellished what was billed and understood as autobiography, the reader is left to wonder how realistic Mr. Sedaris' portraits are of his recurrent characters -- members of his family, his partner, Hugh, even himself. His father, for example, cannot possibly be the overbearing caricature Mr. Sedaris makes him. (Not that the father character isn't hugely entertaining and oddly lovable, with the familiar bark of a kind of Every Dad.)
Likewise, the many stories about global travel have the feel of having been distilled and enhanced in a filmic way. But isn't that just good writing? Taking the detailed, plodding daily notes of a diary and cutting and polishing them into sparkly little gems?
In other hands, some of his subject matter would be uncomfortably personal, scatological or confessional. One essay is a treatise on extensive dental work he's endured (one might almost say embraced) in various countries; another explores his yen to befriend people who live lives of extreme poverty. "Loggerheads" includes painfully vivid descriptions of the unthinking animal cruelty children sometimes inflict, while "A Guy Walks Into a Bar Car" details sad failures to pick up guys on trains. Taxidermy, food and hygiene in China, colonoscopy -- Mr. Sedaris is willing to share his impressions, reactions and feelings about almost anything, even when they don't necessarily do him credit. But he does it with disarming, brutal honesty and phrasing so apt it's like a breath of pure oxygen. (The book's confounding title, by the way, stems from that piece on taxidermy, specifically his quest to buy a stuffed owl for Hugh.)
Running through the essays is a common thread of struggle with the people around him, to understand, to be understood; sometimes literally, in journeys overseas, and often figuratively, in interactions with people who seem like family but reveal themselves to be utterly foreign. He's always learning a new language.
The Sedaris persona is the perennial oddball, but he connects with the oddball in each of us, the little voice that asks, "Am I the only one who sees how ridiculous this all is?" And that, I suppose, is at the heart of his appeal.
Samantha Bennett is a freelance writer and Post-Gazette columnist (firstname.lastname@example.org).