His first book was an essay collection called “Barrel Fever.” Like its author, with his deceptively benign and innocuous appearance, the book had the stealth force of a jalapeño disguised as a bell pepper.
Exclusive: Listen to David Sedaris read an excerpt from his new book, ‘Calypso.’
Now he is about to publish his latest book, “Calypso,” which reflects the usual Sedaris preoccupations: the bonds of siblings, the trials and comforts of domesticity, the softenings and ravagements of time, the general confusion of the world, his family’s extremely weird sense of humor.
Any family that names its seaside cottage “the Sea Section” and seriously considers “The Amniotic Shack” as an alternative is not exactly normal. But “Calypso” reveals the later-day Mr. Sedaris to be more ruminative, more serious, and a little less inclined to play everything for laughs. He is 61 now, and life has crept up on him.
His quick, charismatic and acerbically clever late mother is revealed in the essay “Why Aren’t You Laughing?” to have been an angry alcoholic who abused and embarrassed her family even as they refused to acknowledge what was going on. The essay “Now We Are Five” poignantly discusses, in Mr. Sedaris’s familiarly discursive way, the suicide of his troubled sister, Tiffany.
But the vicissitudes of his daily life are not so different from the vicissitudes of your life and mine, even if his eye for detail and way of processing the world around him are wholly his own. And one of his gifts as a writer is his ability to slip so easily between the profound and the mundane.
“In a lot of the stories nothing huge happens,” Mr. Sedaris said in an interview. It was breakfast in New York, a few days earlier. “I spent a week at the beach with my family, but it wasn’t like anybody got into a car accident or someone broke into the house and stole things. But it still felt like a story to me. You know, how life feels like a story.”
Mr. Sedaris is an atypical author, and not just because of his singular worldview or because his books sell so well or because he spends so much of his free time striding through the English countryside, where he and Hugh now live, picking up trash (“I don’t know what it is about England; people are such slobs,” he said). He also has an unusually close relationship with his readers.
Many writers have mixed feelings about author tours, which all too often, especially these days, feature perfunctory encounters with anemic crowds in half-empty bookstores. Not Mr. Sedaris. He loves audiences, audiences love him, and his readings attract hundreds and even thousands of people.
Even when there is no new work to promote, he spends much of his time on extended tours in the United States and abroad. The current tour goes to places like Toronto, Minneapolis, Houston, Albuquerque, San Francisco, Missoula and many more; heads to Ireland and Britain; and returns to the United States in August. After he appears, he signs books and chats to people late into the night, even if that means all night long. (His record is 10 ½ hours, in Chicago.)
And so Mr. Sedaris remained at a table that night in the Kennedy Center until nearly 1 a.m. The readers snaked in a line far down the vestibule. Mr. Sedaris talked to every one of them. He was in no rush. His conversational gambits covered the sort of topics (abortion, religion, sexuality, disability) that people are advised to avoid in potentially non-safe spaces.
For someone else it would have seemed like a high-wire act; for Mr. Sedaris it was business as usual.
Mr. Sedaris: “Did you go to church on Easter?”
Mr. Sedaris: “What is wrong with you?”
Along came a young woman who, like most people in line, had her first name (Chelsea) written on a card that she handed to Mr. Sedaris, for book-signing purposes.
“How old do you think you are going to be when you die?” Mr. Sedaris asked.
You would think people might be put off, but they weren’t. Not when Mr. Sedaris wrote “Christ died for you” in one woman’s book (“I teach high school students,” she said, “nothing offends me”); or when in another’s book he drew a picture of a three-legged bear with blood spewing from its stump because, he said, it had stepped on a land mine; or when he wrote “you will not be alone forever” in the book of a fan who said she was single.
Nor did anyone mind when he asked a (nonpregnant) woman if she might have an abortion this summer and then advised her to “do it while you still can, because you may not be able to have one in the future”; or when he wrote “you’re using that cane as a crutch” to a reader with a limp; or when he said, “What happened to your mother — is she dead?” to a man named Richard, who wanted a book signed for his father.
“She is to him,” Richard said.