David Sedaris’ work has always had a macabre edge. He’s mined the humor in taxidermy, museums of medical oddities and tales of unusual deaths throughout his 10 previous books and his hugely popular performances.
Death takes no holidays in his new collection of essays, “Happy-Go-Lucky.” Whether he’s writing about his experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic or the slow decline of his fractious father, he’s whistling past the graveyard ― but still hilarious.
The pandemic turned Sedaris’ life upside down. Someone whose job, and joy, is telling stories in front of audiences can’t work from home. Not only did canceling more than a year of touring put a dent in his income, it left him feeling displaced from himself. “Without a live audience,” he writes, “that unwitting congregation of fail-safe editors — I’m lost.”
He and his partner, artist Hugh Hamrick, had recently bought an apartment on New York’s Upper East Side. Sedaris, an inveterate walker, takes to going out after midnight during the lockdown, walking for miles all over the eerily empty city.
Then lockdown is lifted: “As the sidewalks became more crowded, I thought, Oh no. Now I hate people even more than I did during the lockdown!”
He loves his audiences, though, and is thrilled to return to touring and to his legendary book signings, which can last up to 10 hours.
He asks fans to tell him stories, and often, he writes, themes develop. On one tour, it was stories about something that was a flabbergasting discovery for him: that many women are so eager to take off their bras after work that they remove them in the car or, in the case of one woman he talks to, on the bus. (”What you do is unhook it in the back and then pull it out your sleeve.”)
And that removal of the bra signals the end of the day’s responsibility, as one fan tells him. “A friend will call drunk, wanting a ride, and I’ll say, ‘Honey, I got my bra off. Get yourself a cab.’”
Much of Sedaris’ humor comes from saying the quiet parts out loud — writing frankly about things most of us never mention. One is his growing sense of frustration at his father’s longevity. They’d always had a contentious relationship that in David’s youth sometimes edged into abuse.
Even after his son becomes a bestselling author and is invited to be a commencement speaker, Lou Sedaris tells an official at the university (in front of David) they should have invited his daughter, actor and comedian Amy Sedaris: “She’d have the audience in the palm of her hand. … Amy’s the ticket, not David.”
As Lou ages into his 90s, growing more cheerful by the day, he moves into assisted living, where his son’s first visit leads to a ridiculous case of mistaken identity.
One possession Lou insists on taking with him to the facility is a large grandfather clock he calls “Father Time.” When the clock tips over on him, his son observes, “When you’re ninety-five, and Father Time literally knocks you to the ground, don’t you think he’s maybe trying to tell you something?”
Several of this book’s essays deal with what happens when (spoiler alert!) Lou finally does die, at age 98. One, “A Better Place,” is a furiously uproarious dissection of the hoary clichés people offer to survivors. When some mourners call his father “a character,” he provides a wry definition: “A character is what you call a massively difficult person once he has reached the age of eighty-five.”
When someone says Lou must have been “a wonderful man to have been rewarded with such a long life,” his son fumes. “As if it worked that way,” Sedaris writes, “and extra years were tacked on for good behavior. Any number of decent people die young. You know who’s living a ‘good long life’? Dick Cheney. Henry Kissinger. Rupert Murdoch.”
Some of the essays reveal less than wonderful details about Lou, like his sometimes cruel or creepy behavior toward his kids. They have to tackle the condition of their childhood home, where Lou has been hoarding for several decades — his clothes, some so old they’re rotting, “filled seven large closets, one of them a walk-in, and hung off the shower-curtain rods in all three bathrooms.”
Lou was a character, Sedaris realizes, but that’s what created the tight bond among his children — having to deal with him.
He writes about other kinds of loss as well. The first part of “Hurricane Season” is a funny account of his relationship with Hugh and the bickering between Hugh and the Sedaris family. But it turns poignant when the Sea Section, the vacation home on Emerald Isle, North Carolina, they all share, is destroyed by Hurricane Florence. Sedaris, raised in hurricane country, isn’t much surprised. Seeing Hugh’s sorrow, though, is “When you realize you’d give anything to make that other person stop hurting, if only so he can tear your head off again.”
The book’s first essay, “Active Shooter,” is certainly more timely than Sedaris might have hoped. He describes a visit years ago to a shooting range with his sister Lisa, who decides on a whim they should learn how to use guns.
The experience leaves Sedaris cold (although Lisa displays natural aptitude). A few months later the Sandy Hook massacre happens.
In the essay, he contemplates how foreign the American passion for guns seems to him. He simply can’t grasp the mindset that equates guns with freedom. When he wrote the essay, he was living in England, where it’s almost impossible to acquire guns. And yet the British feel they are free, he writes. “Is it that they don’t know what they’re missing? Or is the freedom they feel the freedom of not being shot to death in a classroom or shopping mall or movie theater?”