David Sedaris returns with the solid, if uneven, ‘Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls’

David Sedaris is a legend at this point in his career – his bestsellers, including Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day are classics in the humorous memoir genre. In his successful wake, knock offs sprouted like toadstools. And while many have been lucrative and great reads, none have been able to mimic the expert blend of comedy, pathos, and an unerring eye for the bizarre like Sedaris. Because of his fame and his legion of fawning fans, his latest book, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls has been anticipated with much bated breath. And while these patient fans will find much to love in his newest tome, Sedaris also disappoints with some less-than-inspired forays into political commentary, short fiction, and poetry. But when he sticks to what he does best: brutally exposing the absurdity in situations with his eccentric family or his interesting life, then he shows just why he’s so popular.

Regular readers of Sedaris’ works will recognize some supporting characters in his life, particularly his ornery father, his smarth-mouthed mother, and his partner, Hugh. His siblings also make appearances, including his equally-brilliant humorist sister, Amy (though he never writes about her comedic talent, merely referring to her as “my sister Amy,” the effect being similar to if Janet Jackson blithely said, “Oh, my brother, Michael”). The stories with these loving characters make up the best of Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. In one, he writes of his father’s paternal love for a competing kid in a swim team; poor young David can’t measure up to this gorgeous, athletic kid, and this is yet another example of how hard it was for Sedaris growing up, constantly a disappointment for his dad; his sarcastic, deadpan mother has a great turn in “Loggerheads” that has Sedaris as a child trying to keep a bunch of baby sea turtles alive in his tank; his endeavour is full of holes and destined for heartache, but it’s funny how his mom wakes up from her sea of studied antipathy to offer some half-hearted bits of advice when he tried feeding ground chuck to a moth (“menu-wise, it might not hurt you to branch out a little”) or her scientific take on the merits of sea water vs. salted tap water (“Doesn’t ocean water have nutrients in it or something?”). I always loved Mrs. Sedaris because she’s obviously loving and cares about her kids, but at the same time, she often seems stunned with boredom, frustration, or exhaustion.

Tales of his married life with partner, Hugh are also great – the title refers obliquely to his quest for a stuffed owl he wants to gift to Hugh on Valentine’s Day. Because this is David Sedaris, nothing is normal; and his journey to buy the perfect gift finds him in a taxidermist’s shop, stroking a severed arm, staring at a pygmy skull, and gawking at a shrunken head of a teenaged girl.

It’s when Sedaris tries to be topical that he starts to lost his audience, though. When he takes on marriage equality, he puts together a stilted and cliche-ridden tale of a murder-suicide that has errant moments of cleverness, but is too obvious and pandering – a surprisingly lazy effort from a skilled author like Sedaris; “If I Ruled the World” is a condescending piece written in the voice of a born-again, Tea Party caricature. As with his gay marriage screed, this piece isn’t necessarily offensive, but merely boring because it’s the kind of cheap shot every liberal hack comic lobs. And it’s not like Sedaris isn’t smart enough to take on barbed issues – when he writes of his childhood friendship with a black girl in grade school, he mercilessly skewers misguided liberal guilt as he relays the story of how he believed his friendship would somehow be a gift of somekind to his black friend. If he took on a more sincere approach to the political issues, instead of working so hard to create a goofy character, then his topical humor would and better.

But these quibbles are really besides the point: Sedaris is almost an industry – if he were more prolific, then he’d have the kind of mainstream, multi-media fame of Stephen King or Danielle Steele; still, when one wants to refer to humorist essayists, the first name that’ll pop up is David Sedaris. And at this place in his literary life, he doesn’t really have to prove himself to anyone; and no one can blame Sedaris for not delivering a book with as much impact as his peak work; instead we must judge the book for what it is: a solid, sometimes hilarious, collection that has a few dull spots – if I’m not damning the author with faint praise: in a literary landscape that is increasingly becoming clogged with tales of amorous vampires or teen witches, or S&M-prone housewives, Sedaris is still a reliable break from that.

Click here to buy Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris on amazon.com.

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Filed under Book, Comedy, Humor Essay Collection, Memoir

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