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Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

( 42 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
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Sedaris is an American original—albeit an expatriated one—already familiar to millions from his droll NPR broadcasts. While Americans are often accused of lacking a sense of irony, if he is tossed onto the scales, no fair-minded person could claim that we come up short. If irony were measured in the way that, say, GDP is measured, Sedaris's latest book of essays turns the putative national irony deficit into a healthy surplus. Would that were true of our other deficits.

Sedaris has a talent for hunting the manifold absurdities of life. If absurdities were insects, he would be their Nobel Prize-winning entomologist, pinning them to display boxes with his needle-like wit. He is liable to find these absurdities in all sorts of unlikely places. When his boyfriend is innocently gazing at the stars, wondering aloud about extraterrestrial life, Sedaris purports to be more concerned what "billions of other civilizations" would mean as far as the galactic importance of "our [own] celebrities?" He is wickedly funny about his family, and his childhood vignettes are particularly enjoyable.

It would be gravely deficient, and grossly unfair, to describe his North Carolina upbringing as merely "dysfunctional." Dysfunction is not in and of itself funny, yet Sedaris's childhood is apparently an endless mine of comic material. The funny bits are not slapstick but character-driven comedy of a high order. Mixed in with the laughs is a philosophical sensibility that is bemused in some cosmic way by (for lack of a better term) the human condition. His character portraits alone are worth the price of admission.

For example, one of the early pieces in the book, "The Ship Shape," describes his family's doomed attempt to purchase a beach house. What animates the venture, and fills it with a kind of pathos, is his tightwad father, who, he says, after the collapse of the venture, "would continue to promise what he couldn't deliver, and in time we grew to think of him as an actor auditioning for the role of a benevolent millionaire. He'd never get the part but liked the way the words felt in his mouth."

If these sort of incisive, hilarious characterizations are the jelly in this doughnut of a book, the dialogue is the powdered sugar on top. As well as being a treat in and of itself, the dialogue deepens our understanding of the oddball assortment of characters in Sedaris's life, and Sedaris's ongoing personal predicament, which is by turns awkward, poignant, funny, even sad. But never bathetic or self-indulgent. What makes the book, and his sense of humor, so effective is that Sedaris is not your typical comic whiner. He is too self-aware to countenance self-pity for very long, and this makes his troubles even more hilarious, or, at times, more moving.

When Sedaris is thrown out of the house by his father (after his son's return home from college), he does not yet understand that the reason for his expulsion is his homosexuality. While for most people this would undoubtedly be a kind of primal scene, a searing portrait of emotional exile, Sedaris manages to inject some levity into what would otherwise be a tragic, life-altering scene by completely missing the point. His father never mentions anything about his son's gayness, and Sedaris assumes he is being asked to leave on account of his being a "bum" who lazes around until noon every day perennially stoned and listening to Joni Mitchell records. Paradoxically, this makes his eviction even more poignant — how could someone so funny be chucked out on his ear?

Sedaris's sardonic humor is informed by a peculiar kind of self-consciousness. He seems painfully aware that people are constantly and unselfconsciously acting out roles, and some part of his intelligence watches these performances - including his own — with amused contempt. "As children we'd been assigned certain roles - leader, bum, troublemaker, slut - titles that effectively told us who we were."

When his sister Lisa, the one "most likely to succeed," finds herself at age twenty-one working at a wine-shop as a college dropout, her constructed identity lies in shambles. Does Sedaris rush to her aid? Of course not. He crashes her pad, and when she "needed patience and understanding, more often than not, I found myself wanting to shake her. If the oldest wasn't who she was supposed to be, then what did that mean for the rest of us?"

Some of Sedaris's best material, like the above analysis, reverberates long after it's delivered. The last part of the above statement is no mere rhetorical question, but goes right to the heart of his comic predicament. His awareness of this predicament does not cause him to pause or reflect - it causes him to lash out with bilious mocking.

This contempt escapes in observations that, like icebergs, are deeper and more dangerous than they first appear. There is a surface glibness to his prose, but some of his offhand comments are the most devastating, and funny. And devastatingly funny.

Sedaris's ears perk up at hypocrisy like a dog hearing a dog whistle - the sound of it seems to cause him something like physical pain. The only way he can relieve it, it seems, is by writing about it. For example, in "The Girl Next Door," Sedaris's mother dismissed the eponymous nine-year-old neighbor as déclassé: 'What's her name? Brandi? Well, that cheap, isn't it.' The dog whistle sounds, and Sedaris can't bear it: "'I'm sorry,'" I said, 'but aren't I talking to someone who named her daughter Tiffany?'"

The tragicomedy of his domestic life as a child extends its absurd course into adulthood. Sedaris takes up a succession of bizarre menial jobs and continues to embark on the emotionally constipated relationships he had as a child. He says that he and his boyfriend can only discuss love with the aid of "hand puppets." Although the adult stories are entertaining, somehow they don't pack the same comic punch as the childhood stories.

Essay, in French, means "attempt." This collection not only attempts — it succeeds — in being brilliantly funny. Recommended.

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