I’m ashamed to admit that I’m only a recent David Sedaris convert. I heard him talking on a podcast a month or two back, telling tales about the hours he puts in roaming the roads around his house in Sussex, picking up garbage, clocking up steps on his beloved Fitbit, and describing the snapping turtles of Emerald Isle (a town on the Carolina coast where he and his family vacation together). His favourite had a tumour growing out of its head, and Sedaris felt a strange urge to feed it to his own lipoma (a benign fatty lump the size and feel of an “unshelled hard-boiled egg” that was growing under the base of his ribcage). Needless to say, I was instantly hooked.
All this and more can be found in his latest collection, Calypso. I feel like I want to call the works therein stories rather than essays, even if the latter is technically the correct term. Sedaris’s genius is that he spins narrative — and not just any old narrative, which in itself is an achievement, but narrative that’s in turn both hilarious and moving — out of his ordinary everyday existence.
He writes about life with his partner Hugh. His obsessive trash collecting (he’s gathered so much of the stuff the local council actually named a rubbish truck after him), and his nocturnal encounters with a fox he named Carol.
Then there are his accounts of holidays with his family. He and his sisters obsessively shopping for designer clothes in Japan, where he accidentally tells a cashier he’s a paediatrician, “I wouldn’t set out to misrepresent myself, but I didn’t know the word for ‘author’ or ‘trash collector.’ ‘Doctor,’ though, was in one of the ninety ‘Teach Yourself Japanese’ lessons I’d reviewed before leaving England.” He holidays at the Sea Section, his comically named house on Emerald Isle.
It’s not all humour though, the opening story deals with growing older — the “only perk” of which, as Sedaris sees it, is the acquisition of a guest bedroom — and he also writes about the tragic losses of those closest to him — his sister Tiffany, who died by suicide in 2013 (Sedaris bravely does nothing to sugarcoat the harshness and pain of their last encounter), and his mother who suffered from alcoholism—”Our mother was the one who held us all together.After her death we were like a fistful of damp soil, loose bits breaking off with no one to press them back in.”
Sedaris may well be the master of the deadpan delivery — there’s plenty of laughing out loud while you read. But Calypso is also a tender portrait of a family, flawed — like any other — but doing their best to love each other, “They were just telling me what I needed to hear, something to ease my conscience and make me feel that underneath it all I’m no different from anyone else. They’ve always done that for me, my family. It’s what keeps me coming back.”