David Sedaris has gotten less funny as he’s gotten older. That’s not a criticism. While Sedaris essays always had cloaked away in the depths of their quirk a certain amount of sagacity, a lot of times that was sandwiched in between ridiculous scenarios—midget guitar teachers, grown men dressing as elves, hitchhiking with a quadriplegic. It’s not like the background has gotten any less ridiculous. For heaven’s sakes, Sedaris is feeding a kookaburra and picking up trash on a bicycle. But in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, the wisdom seems to bubble more to the forefront. With maybe one funny thing for every three paragraphs of scene or thought. The humor, when it’s there—and there are some essays in here that I don’t find rip-roaring hilarious, and don’t care to—is not always the understatement/overstatement juggle Sedaris rose to fame with. So I assume there are going to be people who consider this collection a failure.
To me, though, it’s a continuation of what Sedaris started with When You Are Engulfed In Flames—an examination of self, and a harsh one, rather than a story. This is very apparent by the time you get to “Memory Laps”, an essay about Sedaris’ relationship with his father. He admits his father used to call him a “big fat zero” and illustrates a moment whereupon being told David’s book is number one on the New York Times best-seller list, Sedaris elder points out he hasn’t topped the Washington Post’s. Is that funny? No. Is it pathetic? Not at all. There’s a tremendous honesty and familiarity that has always been at the heart of Sedaris’s best work, and it makes “Memory Laps”, along with some other more sober essays about his sister Gretchen’s mugging and a late-night ride in a bar car, one of the standout pieces of the collection. Even if I did not smile at all while reading it.
Sedaris also goes back to his roots with some frankly silly monologues where he pretends to be intensely mockable characters such as a Republican Mom and a teenager obsessed with England. These are entertaining, as the subjects display a certain amount of hubris coupled with insanity, but less so than the bona-fide stuff. And for my money, when it comes to satirical fiction, Sedaris can’t top Barrel Fever’s Homophobia Newsletter.
While I was reading Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, a lot of people asked me if they should pick up a copy as an introduction to Sedaris’s work. My answer is unequivocally no. While I wouldn’t start with Barrel Fever, (perhaps Naked or Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim), earlier Sedaris lets you in on the things that people love—his personality and wild scenarios, while just giving you enough hints at the maturity and steadfastness his later work will bring to the fore. Like the skilled clown he is, Sedaris gives you something to laugh at to distract you. After one or two other collection, go explore Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls at your leisure: preferably sans diabetes, and the avian companions are extra credit.
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