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David Sedaris’s humour works because he writes well about anything

Anne Fishbein

Title
Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls
Author
David Sedaris
Genre
Nonfiction
Publisher
Little, Brown
Pages
288
Price
$30

I'm not much drawn to books of humour. They frequently depress me. They're seldom genuinely funny and I can often feel the pause the writer's left for me on the page in expectation of my laughter. It's like being cornered at a party by the loud "funny guy." I shift awkwardly from foot to foot in the margin, looking over the top of the book to whatever bleak and elegant text I'd been enjoying before this one lumbered along. So I avoid works of humour for the most part, but I love reading David Sedaris.

I've often said the secret to Sedaris is that he's such a good writer, it wouldn't really matter if he wasn't being funny, and parts of his latest book, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, test my theory.

There's a shift of tone in this work. There are still anecdotes from his childhood. He writes of his father's admiration for another member of the swim team and the great sadness that caused his young self, and of the slow death of his pet sea turtles, which doesn't – self-awareness to the point of masochism is one of Sedaris's charms – seem to have caused him any sadness at all. The stories, however, are sometimes more reflective than much of his earlier writing.

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There are times when Sedaris is merely observing, recounting, not joking, and here he proves my theory correct: He's still entirely engaging in these passages.

The beauty of this is that just when you're so completely engrossed in the narrative that you've probably forgotten to look for those laugh-aloud lines for which he's famous – and there are many in this book – they come at you as though from nowhere.

Consider them animals darting out in front of your car when Sedaris's skill as a storyteller has you focused on the road ahead.

He's a master. You're never worried for him. The perfect place for a writer to have you if he's going to make you laugh. Even the more broad humour of the short character pieces written in the voices of various awful people in Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls (he used a similar device in Barrel Fever) mostly succeed.

Sedaris, whose past works also include Naked, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and Me Talk Pretty One Day, is now 56 and happily settled with his partner of many years, Hugh. They live in England and have a home in Normandy. His dentist, of whom he's inordinately fond – "I've gone from avoiding dentists and periodontists to practically stalking them," he writes, "not in some quest for a Hollywood smile but because I enjoy their company" – is in Paris.

Although he documents the life of a successful writer (one who considers buying the skeleton of a murdered pygmy), the humour still comes from his acutely observational eye trained on the everyday.

Michelangelo said, "Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it." That's perhaps the gift of a great humour writer like Sedaris. He appears to notice everything in his days – days that aren't all that different from most of our own, spent in lines at airports, visiting a Costco, getting a colonoscopy (he loved it!) – and then, if he so chooses, he takes away everything that isn't funny.

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For a writer so gloriously, hilariously judgmental, Sedaris is never moralistic. He contrasts contemporary parents who endlessly negotiate with their children, all of whom have "vaguely presidential" sounding names ("McKinley, Madison, Kennedy or Lincoln" or "beet-faced baby Reagan"), with the parents who raised his own generation.

It was a less kind and gentle time, a time when his own father picked a neighbourhood boy (the wrong one, as it turns out) up off the ground by the neck for calling Mrs. Sedaris – pregnant and enjoying a glass of wine and a cigarette – a bitch.

There were no lawsuits brought against his father by the boy's family, Sedaris recalls cheerfully.

"Their son hadn't died, just gone without oxygen for a minute. And might that not make him stronger?" he writes, and in doing so, he deftly forces the reader away from any trite "O tempora o mores" conclusion he might be reaching.

A minute without oxygen is no small thing and the story merely chronicles the frontier justice of a middle-class suburb living in a time "before they invented self-esteem."

There's little sentimentality to Sedaris, although almost every story in Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls is a love story of a kind, fantastically witty, and perceptive as David Sedaris always is, and now told by someone who's clearly, perhaps with difficulty, come to enjoy being loved.

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Tabatha Southey is a columnist for Elle Canada and The Globe and Mail and the author of two books for children.

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