I’ve been a David Sedaris fan, like most literate people, since I read Me Talk Pretty One Day. He’s an absolute genius with phrasing, heart, and imagery, and he makes you think you could write a hilarious essay about your boring family, too. Since I had read several of his well-known books, and I’ve loved them dearly, I decided to see how it all started before he got Very Famous.
There were passages in Barrel Fever that I loved, that really don’t need any context, such as,
- “It is confusing when a stupid man plays dumb.” (p. 30)
- “From what I’ve seen on television, animals will mate without regard to who has a glossier coat or the longest whiskers. I don’t get the idea that apes turn down dates. They might talk but I doubt anyone’s feelings get hurt in the process.” (p. 102)
- “I prefer being frank with children. I’m more likely to say, ‘You must be exhausted,’ or “I know a lot of people who would kill for that little waistline of yours.'” (p. 174)
But on the whole, I wasn’t the hugest fan of the collection. The so-called “stories” didn’t feel like stories, but rather ramblings that culminated in sexual innuendos or encounters. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s not what I get a kick out of reading. There’s something about the combination of the zaniness of these pieces—many of which were written from the perspective of rather convincing characters that I just didn’t like very much—and the single-guy-living-life vibe throughout, that contrasts so drastically with his later books. Barrel Fever is his first significant published work, so I can appreciate how style and subject matter evolved over time, and I applaud it. But maybe I’m so used to older Sedaris, living happy and content with Hugh, that younger Sedaris is too much fun for me. The “essays” part of Barrel Fever, which more fully embodied the voice of his that we’ve all come to recognize, was far more enjoyable a read for me.
I think Sedaris’ sense of humor has gotten lighter over the years, too. There was one very dark story in particular, “Firestone,” that left me cold because of how genuinely sad a life the narrator seemed to lead. Younger Sedaris had a real knack for turning imaginings, dalliances, and delusions—take “Don’s Story,” for example, essentially an Oscar speech for a Hollywood type who’s being swallowed up by his own ego; or “Seasons Greetings,” in which a family matriarch goes on a long tangent about her husband’s wartime lovechild and ends up incorporating a dead baby into the anecdote—into fully-fleshed-out tales, but I’ve always been more partial to prose that’s rooted in reality. Or maybe I’m jealous of his imagination, I don’t know. I have to give him credit for creating such a rich array of specific, easily hatable, self-centered people, in any case. They are as important to their stories as the plots they’re unfolding. Even the side characters in his stories are people I’d hope never to encounter in public. In “Giantess,” he works with a guy who, “given a choice, [would] rather fall from a higher floor as it would allow more time for his life to flash before his eyes” (p. 159).
I feel more at home reading what Sedaris has written about his family, because I relate to his verbal eye-rolls. Here’s an example. In the story “My Manuscript,” he offers two particularly pointed characterizations of his father. Though my own dad didn’t bar me from listening to other people’s music—oh, what a wretched life that would have been!—he did insist that I take piano lessons for many years. And I was unable to visualize the scope of importance of this skill at the time, instead choosing to side with an opinion somewhat resembling young David’s on p. 24:
My father told me that if I want to listen to music then I should learn to make it myself. Who said anything about music? Dad said that the guy who can play guitar is going to be the life of the party. He’s confusing life with death. The real life of the party is flattened beneath the bed, taping actual sex encounters, not sitting cross-legged on the floor with a guitar, embarrassing himself and others.
On the same page, Sedaris also pinpoints a certain type of complaining that I think we’ve all witnessed in older generations, one that we hope we don’t embody when we get there:
While he was growing up, my father lived under what he likes to describe as “harsh circumstances” in a small, ugly apartment. By harsh circumstances my father means that they had a certain instead of a bathroom door. He never had a bedroom and had to sleep on a back-breaking foldout sofa and go to work before and after school, shining shoes and selling newspapers. He has a point there, that’s harsh. Unfortunately, they never gave him a medal for it and as a result he brings it up time and time again.
My favorite piece of the lot, “After Malison,” actually falls in the “stories” category, but it’s just so deliciously satirical that it broke me. The narrator Sedaris chooses here is a fangirl—more like a fan-dame, really—who brags about how into a certain author she is, and spends most of the piece contemplating the least invasive way of stalking said author. He embodies the “all talk, no walk” mindset so perfectly. It’s a feat. Here are two of my favorite passages:
- “He never numbers his pages, but I was with him for a good quarter-inch at the beginning of the second part. I just mouthed the words while he read. I wasn’t doing it for attention; it’s just a reflex action because I know his work, all of it, so well.” (p. 115)
- “I’m sure if Malison did talk to her he only did it in order to get a feel for the stupidity of his audience.” (p. 123)
The real reason why we all relate to David Sedaris isn’t his incredible wit. It’s a rare trait that most people just don’t have, and instead spend their whole lives curating and coveting. No, the elements that pull us into his writing are the stark, sad truths that he pens with the same wit as the hysterical passages I quoted at the start of this post. He is a true observer of humanity, and he knows exactly how to characterize his fellow humans. Though I can’t put Barrel Fever at the top of my list, I can still admire it as an explosive, creative, honest start to his incredible career, and I can treasure the deep wisdom he shared with all of us when he was just in his 30’s. On p. 188, he says, “[…] you would like to believe that everyone is unique and then they disappoint you every time by being exactly the same, asking for the same things, reciting the exact same lines as though they have been handed a script.” Thankfully, he always operates off-the-cuff, and the results are brilliant.