The Best of Me by David Sedaris. New York: Little, Brown, 2020, 388 pages, $30
Essayist David Sedaris now physically lives in England, but his intellectual output inhabits permanent real estate at the street corner of Tragedy and Comedy in the American humorist oeuvre. The Best of Me contains a smattering of his most memorable and evocative musings on family life, being a gay male in a committed relationship, human interaction with pets, and the stresses of dealing with dysfunctional family members.
Many of the more than 40 essays in this collection are not new work, but they represent a broad spectrum of his funniest output over a writing career that started in the early 1990s. Sedaris first became prominent when National Public Radio broadcast “The Santaland Diaries” based on his raucous observations about human nature and the parenting style of others while working as a Christmas elf at a busy department store.
Some of the most poignant essays deal with Sedaris’ large brood of five siblings with whom he was reared in the environs of Raleigh, NC. They include happy details about family beach trips to a house on the Carolina coast and tales of recreational shopping binges with his sisters as a young adult. But they also detail dark images of an alcoholic mother, a hoarder father, and a depressive sister who grows increasingly estranged from the family in middle age and overdoses alone in a squalid rented room.
Other essays use animals as stand-ins for human behavior. Most amusing of the animal essays include “The Faithful Setter”, a story about infidelity involving a bickering canine couple in which the female strays with the dog next door and then the male becomes emotionally involved with an Irish setter he’s sent to breed with for a stud fee. The story is capped off when the faithful setter witnesses a human house fire and realizes that the owner has attempted to save her pet dachshund first instead of her teenage son. What emerges is the author’s musing on the psychological burden of our strange and misplaced loyalties.
Another animal tale with more overtones of dark fable is the essay called “The Motherless Bear”. It depicts a wild bear who trades on the sympathy of being left orphaned as a small cub and eventually learns to wallow in the pity of others. After encountering a chained, abused, toothless “circus” bear, “the motherless bear” is kidnapped, restrained, and forced to perform as a replacement for the circus bear. The moral being that empathy shouldn’t be taken for granted because you might come upon a time of greater adversity in which you will have a greater appreciation for the fore”bear”ance of others.
Additional vignettes that reveal Sedaris as a deft storyteller involve interacting with strangers on crowded airplanes, learning a foreign language in a group class overseas, and childhood remembrances of the team sports experience as seen by an esthete rather than an athlete. There are also a number of digs at the upper middle-class lifestyle of his young years including the comparative lack of oversight of children by their mothers as happy hour approached at the suburban Country Club poolside. All exhibit a biting wit that’ll keep the reader coming back for more of Sedaris’ sometimes foul-mouthed but seldom mean-spirited humor.
Lisa Kobrin is the Reference and Local History Librarian at May Memorial Library. She can be reached at email@example.com.