David Sedaris: Happy-Go-Lucky | Little, Brown and Company; May 31, 2022
An Evening With David Sedaris | Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh Wed., April 13, 7:30 p.m., $55+
North Carolinians—or at least those of us who enjoy seeing our state through the twisted lens of Sedarian humor—may rejoice: David Sedaris’s latest essay collection, Happy-Go-Lucky, has much more of the Old North State in it.
Happy-Go-Lucky starts with Sedaris and his sister Lisa visiting a Winston-Salem gun range. In following essays, he shares his and his partner Hugh’s fight to restore their Emerald Isle beach house (wonderfully named the Sea Section) after Hurricane Florence and the family’s time spent in their father’s North Carolina nursing home.
In these new essays, Sedaris continues on themes he began to explore in Calypso, namely his father’s aging, his own aging, and the business of maintaining a beach house on a hurricane-plagued piece of coastline. He also spends ample time being concerned for young people and meditating on the nature of comedy, writing, and performance. Oh, and dental work.
If those topics don’t sound like cause for rejoicing, well, fair. But if you’re a devotee of Sedaris’s work, I think you’ll enjoy this collection. He approaches each of these challenges with his characteristic witty ire, but a few of the essays did leave me thinking about more somber topics like the mortality of my parents and the horror of training children to deal with school shootings.
As always, Sedaris is often shockingly candid. He shares his phobia of looking at his own teeth (this checks out: have you ever seen a photo of him smiling with them visible?), a touch of regret about the last words he said to his father, and the immensely uncomfortable tension of being the subject of at least one youth’s sexual awakening. Just a heads up, the most uncomfortably frank essay investigates his father’s consistent sexual comments about his daughters and one daughter’s accusations of sexual abuse.
Sedaris has often relied on the alternate insight and obliviousness of children to highlight the comedy of everyday life. (Well, he uses them to highlight the comedy of his everyday life, which I’ll admit has a higher level of inherent humor than I can find in my own.) Earlier collections focused almost entirely on Sedaris’s own childhood, but he spends a good amount of time in Happy-Go-Lucky focusing on other children, through exercises such as imagining what it might be like to be a child in a time of school shootings. It works well to highlight the whole uneasy aging thing.
Sedaris is often thoughtful, attacking uncomfortable topics in a darkly funny way. But at least one essay, the one about his father’s death, made me feel the way Bo Burnham’s Inside or Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette did: that I’d fallen prey to a bait and switch where I did not get the laughs I thought I would.
Other essays even take a similar path to some of Burnham’s more poignant moments in Inside. Sedaris considers, for example, the fact that he gets to profit off of his own trauma as long as he can frame it in a way that makes people laugh. Sedaris describes both the freedom that can come from turning trauma into comedy gold and into actual revenue and the necessity of an actual audience for what he does. (Zoom just doesn’t cut it some days, does it?)
He doesn’t linger in this place of self-reflection (indulgence?) for too long, though. He also arrives at a different conclusion than many of us when we reflect on varying levels of emotional exploitation in our own careers: Sedaris likes his job. He likes it when you and I are there to laugh at the trials of his childhood. I found myself touched by his gratitude that we continue to support him in that line of work.
And then, there’s the book cover: on it, a small child smiles while leaning on the arm of a truly grotesque clown who’s holding a small white dog—a poodle maybe? As uncomfortable as the artwork might be, it’s fitting for this collection. If you or I sat down and drew a clown face right now, we’d all probably do similar versions of exaggerated features. Double those to get the scope of this clown’s raggedy face, and trim the mouth down to three painted-on teeth in a Joker smile.
I probably wouldn’t allow this snapshot in my house in any form other than as a necessary attachment to Sedaris’s essays, but I couldn’t imagine a better representation of them. Children watch or attack or ignore Sedaris throughout the collection. He uses their innocence to highlight the creeping horror of confronting his own mortality or, more hauntingly, that of the kindergarteners across the country practicing active-shooter drills.
If you’re looking to be entertained by another round of lightly self-effacing elitism and Sedarian “can he really say that?”—well, he did, and in just another month or so, Happy-Go-Lucky can be yours to have and to hold.
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