Book Review: ‘Happy-Go-Lucky,’ by David Sedaris

HAPPY-GO-LUCKYby David Sedaris

In the past five years, David Sedaris has published seven books—two essay collections; an anthology; two diaries, both more than 500 pages long; a visual compendium to the diaries; and an ebook version of an essay. Can an eponymous fragrance be far in the offing? (“I know-daring. For the imp in you.”)

Depending on your point of view, this onslaught — particularly given that Sedaris likes to revisit scenarios that he’s already written about — may strike you as either overgenerous or delightful. I fall into the latter camp, partly because “retention” is merely a word to me, and partly because I hold that the essential trait of a literary classic is that it is so textured that one can reread it and usually find something new.

Sedaris’s last collection, “Calypso,” practically destroyed me. Between the accounts of his troubled sister of him Tiffany, who died by suicide, and those of his father of him, who was begrudging and abusive to Sedaris throughout his life of him, I welled with tears four times. I chuckled frequently and projectile-laughed once. Most contemporary comic essayists have honed their powers of self-deprecation into excoriating, and sometimes exhausting, laser beams, but Sedaris is often willing to apply this same level of scrutiny to other people as well—and to do it without being nasty. For readers this can be eye-widening, and sometimes exciting, and surely is part of what makes Sedaris’s work such a sneaky, subversive thrill. Whether he’s detailing how his father, Lou, liked to eat food that he’d hidden around the house until it rotted, or he’s going off on homeless people in Portland, Sedaris dispenses with the parameters of You Can’t Say That like a tween boy scorching ants with a magnifying glass.

In my favorite type of Sedaris essay — the kind I’ll keep rereading — 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 circle around that topic; but then, in the last paragraph or two, he unleashes a blast of tenderness or humanity that catches you off guard. Take the new collection’s offering “Hurricane Season,” which, mostly set at Sedaris and his boyfriend Hugh’s beach houses in North Carolina, is about how spending time with our families can cause us to re-examine our relationships with our partners. Sedaris knows that his siblings of him are sometimes put off by Hugh: Each of them, at some point, has asked Sedaris, “What is his problem?” Hugh, the guardian of manners and tradition among the wild-eyed and heathen Sedarii, is not afraid to snap or dole out punishment when one of them wears a down coat to the dinner table, or calls his chairs rickety, or feeds candy to before (Sedaris, the candyman, writes, “Gretchen patted my hand. ‘Don’t listen to Hugh. He doesn’t know [expletive] about being an ant.’”) But by essay’s end we find Hugh, after one of his and Sedaris’s houses is all but destroyed by Hurricane Florence, holed up in the bedroom, sobbing, his face in his hands, his shoulders quaking. We learn that three of the houses Hugh grew up in had also been destroyed. In such moments, Sedaris’s family has no jurisdiction: “They see me getting scolded from time to time, getting locked out of my own house, but where are they in the darkening rooms when a close friend dies or rebels storm the embassy? When the wind picks up and the floodwaters rise? When you realize you’d give anything to make that other person stop hurting, if only so he can tear your head off again?”

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