Family jewels 

David Sedaris and the ties that bind

It’s amazing that David Sedaris’ family will still talk to him, given the autobiographical nature of his writing. Apparently, they’ve tried to stop. “More and more of their stories begin with the line ‘You have to swear you will never repeat this,’” Sedaris writes.

Of course, Sedaris has never held to his word. In his latest collection, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, he opens up his literary raincoat one more time and exposes his family jewels: his mother, his father, his three sisters. The result is his funniest, most tender-hearted book yet. (His family might disagree.) Here, his father comes across as a tight-fisted, big-hearted dreamer who promised more than he could deliver. His mother emerges as a shrill-voiced insomniac, forever trying to keep her kids from sliding out of the middle class. And Sedaris’ sisters and kid brother act as enemies in his childhood scheme to keep his parents from snooping in his business.

On the page, the Sedaris family coalesces like a sitcom cast: Their antics are weird enough to produce giggles, but familiar enough to inspire a frisson of recognition. “My parents were not the type of people who went to bed at a regular time,” Sedaris writes in “Full House.” “My father favored a chair in the basement, but my mother was apt to lie down anywhere, waking with carpet burns on her face or the pattern of the sofa embossed into the soft flesh of her upper arms.”

An admitted obsessive-compulsive, Sedaris is uniquely suited to reenter the hyperaware mindset of adolescence. Dress Your Family is often less an exercise in self-deprecation than a study in humiliation. In one essay, Sedaris’ father storms over to the house of one of David’s classmates in paint-splattered pants and a T-shirt that shows his nipple—all this because the kid threw a rock at his son. In “Full House,” Mr. Sedaris shoves his son out the door to a sleepover, unaware that spending the night with four boys will be a highwire act for young David, who already has more than a hunch that he likes his own kind.

In this sense, the real subject of the book is not Sedaris’ family but the author himself, and how he felt about his flesh and blood growing up. Judging by these essays, it appears Sedaris carried around a sneaking suspicion that somehow his family just wasn’t good enough. In “Us and Them,” he recalls spying on a family next door. “During [dinner], Mr. Tomkey would occasionally pound the table and point at his children, but the moment he finished, everyone would start laughing. I got the idea that he was imitating someone else, and wondered if he spied on us while we were eating.” Sedaris began watching his neighbors out of pity—they had no television—but he walks away pitying his own family for its dinnertime bickering.

This fear of being mocked—specifically because of his kin—presses heavily on the young Sedaris. And what makes Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim so funny is that he finally allows himself to join in with those real and imaginary detractors. It’s a tricky act of sublimation, since Sedaris modulates each snarky wisecrack with a glimpse of the real love and admiration he had for his parents. “Slumlordicus” begins as a screed about how his father drafted him into the family business, but finishes with a father-son moment tender enough for a Tim Russert memoir.

Many of these essays were written for publication in magazines, and the book’s variety reveals these origins. In one of the funniest off-topic pieces, Sedaris describes a weekend in a New Hampshire hotel where, bludgeoned by too much conservative talk radio, he decides to prove to himself that he can escort a child back to his room without molesting him. Alone with the child, he experiences a kind of anxiety that, while flying, he quells by touching the back of someone’s head.

“Most often I’ll continue getting out of my seat, then walk to the back of the plane or go to the bathroom and stand there for a few minutes, trying to fight off what I know is inevitable: I need to touch the person’s head again. Experience has taught me that you can do this three times before the head’s owner yells at you or rings for the flight attendant.”

As funny as this anecdote is, coming after a dozen stories about Sedaris’ family it’s painfully clear how Sedaris’ boyhood fears transformed him into the human-moment machine he is today. Although sensitive readers might shed a tear or two when Sedaris acknowledges this fact, he won’t let us dwell on it. Sedaris, after all, still needs to serve up the big painless yuks—that’s what people keep coming back for. And that’s how we end up with a story like “Rooster at the Hitchin’ Post,” in which Sedaris describes his brother’s wedding. At one point, his sister-in-law’s pug takes a crap on the lawn. Without blinking, his little brother snaps his fingers and a Great Dane bounds over and gobbles the mess up in one bite.

Sedaris is aghast. “Tell me that was an accident,” he says. “Accident,” his brother replies. “I got this motherfucker trained.”

Sedaris’ brother, it would seem, lives by the same credo as the author in the family: If life gives you shit, make a shit sandwich.

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