At age 33, David Sedaris famously donned green velvet knickers to work as an elf at Macy’s Santaland. It was the 1990s, when a new wave of memoirs like Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation and Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club were all the rage. And thanks to his account of that elfin stint, he soon became the leading figure in a less angsty movement — call it the comic confessional — that artfully milked embarrassing personal incidents for literary laughs and giant book sales. In his new collection, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, he once again recounts cringeworthy episodes like his boyhood stint on a swim team (”Most of my ribbons were for good sportsmanship”) and drops witty, often tangential aperçus (on Australia: ”It’s Canada in a thong”).
After two decades of raiding his journals for essay fodder, though, the well of humiliation may be, if not dry, then verging on merely moist. There’s a lot more filler here, with pieces underscoring that Sedaris’ days as a struggling artist are far behind him: riffs about his vacation homes in France and England and his reluctance to pose for photos on increasingly well-attended book tours. At times he sounds like a reincarnated Andy Rooney grousing about lax modern parenting, flight delays, and annoyingly talkative people ahead of him in coffeehouse lines. An essay about unhygienic food service in China understandably raised some hackles when it first appeared in London’s Guardian.
But there are still plenty of well-cut gems, including one about an ill-fated adoption of some sea turtles that’s both hilarious and touching. Interestingly, some of his best new work is outright fiction. (It’s easy to forget that such stories made up fully half of his first book, Barrel Fever.) ”Just a Quick E-mail,” about a solipsistic bridezilla complaining about one of her wedding gifts, suggests a shotgun marriage of George Saunders and O. Henry. While Sedaris’ satirical gifts may not lend themselves to a full-length novel, he’d be a welcome addition to the recent short-story renaissance. B+
”My dad was like the Marine Corps, only instead of tearing you to pieces and then putting you back together, he just did the first part and called it a day.”