Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, by David Sedaris, Abacus, RRP£12.99/Little, Brown, RRP$27, 288 pages
In the US David Sedaris is a national treasure. Americans think of him as Truman Capote crossed with John Boy Walton. To this Londoner he is thoughtful, witty, excitable, world-weary, romantic, fastidious and sometimes callous; in other words, his neat person houses most or all of the available human traits.
In this new collection of essays, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, we travel back into Sedaris’s childhood, viewing the events that formed the man. In the present we accompany him on many trips to healthcare professionals who ensure that the man remains intact. We journey with him to China, which disgusts him. We observe him shopping for Valentine’s Day in a London taxidermist’s, where under-the-counter human stock is suddenly produced. We undergo his colonoscopy with him – an operation performed by a man named Holmes – and, Watson-like, we almost pace the room in tweeds until he emerges in a post-general-anaesthetic bliss. We follow him falling for a Lebanese stranger on an Italian train, the carriage smarting with cloudy symbols of high romance, reminding me for a moment of a short story by James Joyce.
Sedaris shrugs at life. Often he winces. Sometimes he does both these things at the same time. The magnet “Don’t sweat the small stuff” will not be making an appearance on his fridge any time soon. And nor should it, for if God is said to be in the details, and the devil, one thing’s certain: the details of life must be very, very important. There are a few fictional monologues in this collection that are more crudely executed and less winning than the personal pieces.
The chapters that delve inside the Sedaris family’s dynamics are the ones that speak most deeply to this nosy parker. His mother’s salty wisecracks are recherché and enchanting (from afar). His younger sister’s regard for him indulges his need for elevation.
In “Memory Laps” his schoolboy competitive swimming career is marred by his father’s obsession with Greg Sakas, a better swimmer on the circuit. Poolside, his father tortures him with phrases like, “Man alive, that kid is faaaantastic.” Greg even has the perfect mother: glamorous in a chocolate brown bikini, she begins to look naked as her tan deepens.
So involving is the Sedaris family that at times the reader feels like another squabbling child squished in the back of the car, after swimming, between David in his towel skirt (Egyptian NOT girlish) and his sisters. The natural extension of this fellow feeling, all this ribbing and jousting, is a kind of sibling rivalry. Soon I couldn’t help putting down the book, scratching my chin and murmuring, “I’m sorry but I prefer my Donny Osmond story.” Or, “Pardon me, but I wonder if you killing pet turtles with that raw hamburger diet has the same depth of poignancy as my guinea-pig-disaster summer when I took several for walks with string leads and, sad to say, their necks just couldn’t take it.” When Sedaris, as a boy, says of his chubby sister, “Gretchen’s in a sunbeam. Does anybody else smell bacon frying?” I remembered a friend repeating to her little sister every night for a year, “Goodnight Belinda, hope you die in your sleep.”
Occasionally Sedaris writes something really objectionable: that a call-centre worker has “dysentery” and “mangoes” in his voice; that China is literally a shit-hole; or that a cranky child in a supermarket should receive “a slap ... across the face” to give him something to cry about. Then there are glimpses of a world gone wrong, as when Julie Andrews appears topless in one of her later movies to throw off the candy-striped whiff of Mary Poppins or that curtain-clad guitar-toting nun.
Sedaris’s best writings have a beguiling conversational tone, creating waves of sympathy, as though you are chatting intimately to a rather amazing stranger who’s addressing you and you alone. His recollections spur on your own, his books creating an environment where plights and gripes, feelings of exclusion or oddness, one’s bad points, family struggles, pet-slaughter and even chronic stomach troubles can be worn as badges of honour, for they might just be the greatest things on earth.
Susie Boyt is author of ‘The Small Hours’ (Virago)