There is a scene in one of the stories in his latest book Calypso, where David Sedaris describes his partner meticulously setting everything aside to sit and read with undivided attention a letter Sedaris had written while away on tour.
Sedaris then goes on to reveal that he performs a similar ritual himself when discovering a new Lorrie Moore story published in The New Yorker magazine. As an avid reader I recognise myself in this, not just when it comes to Moore (though she is a writer to whom I more than willingly give my full attention) but also whenever I chance upon a new story written by Sedaris himself.
Sedaris is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, which has published several dozen of his short stories over the years. As such I had already read quite a few of the pieces featured in this book, or at least versions of them, but rediscovered them with joy.
Though they are, in fact, personal essays, I refer to his writing as stories, because essays sound too staid and restrictive a term for writing that is so exuberant and narrative and character-led.
Those familiar with his work will know he writes nonfictional accounts of his daily life with a straightforwardness that belies their subtle profundity. He is refreshingly honest and self-deprecating in mining his personal vulnerabilities, his quirks, his homosexuality, his character flaws, showing, like any good writer, what it is to be human.
In one of the earlier stories Sedaris and partner Hugh Hamrick buy a beach house on Emerald Isle off the coast of North Carolina, the United States. They do so almost on a whim, and it speaks to Sedaris’s quirky humour that he names the house “Sea Section”. This holiday home becomes the stage and setting for several of the stories, many of which are, at least partially, accounts of vacations shared with his family.
Family is a recurring theme throughout these stories, and in many ways Calypso can be read as a tragicomic family portrait.
Some readers may already know the author’s sister Amy, a comedian perhaps currently best known for being the feline voice of Princess Carolyn, the pink cat and sometime agent of the neurotic cartoon character BoJack Horseman (if you are not familiar with the animated TV series BoJack Horseman, do yourself a favour and acquaint yourself – just mind that it’s NOT suitable for kids). Like the other family members, Amy makes several appearances, though always as herself. Sedaris’s brother Paul doesn’t feature quite as frequently but we learn that he has all but given up eating solid food.
The gut-wrenching account of his estranged youngest sister Tiffany’s demise and suicide, revisited in several stories, was enough to bring tears to this reader’s eyes, and the poignant exploration of his mother’s alcoholism in “Why Aren’t You Laughing” is devastating. His stubborn aged father features too, regularly falling over and living in near squalid miserly conditions despite being more than wealthy enough to afford to live in more salubrious surroundings with domestic help and care.
The other stage set for these stories is the 16th century cottage in the West Sussex countryside in England, where Sedaris and Hamrick have long made their home. We see Sedaris form a compulsive habit with his FitBit activity tracker, obsessively counting the miles – he is American – he walks every day, until he spends a significant portion of his time (he mentions nine hours a day) daily walking distances the equivalent of a marathon. As he walks he picks up stray pieces of rubbish from the roadsides and takes to carrying a rubbish-grabber, filling plastic bags in his one-man campaign to keep the English countryside tidy.
Though he writes about serious life and death issues, at heart Sedaris is a comic and almost every one of these 21 stories had moments that made me laugh so hard I had to set the book aside. In “I’m Still Standing” he writes hilariously and scatalogically about the challenges of having a gastrointestinal virus while on tour, and in the title story “Calypso” he tells of a chance encounter at a book signing that leads to him having a non-malignant tumour removed, which he feeds to a snapping turtle.
For readers unfamiliar with the writer’s work, Calypso makes a perfect introduction, and those already acquainted with his writing will find Sedaris in top form in what may very well be his best book yet.
Author: David Sedaris
Publisher: Little, Brown and Co, essays