The Family Jewels

David Sedaris unlocks another treasure chest of clan humiliation

David Sedaris
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
Little, Brown

It's amazing that David Sedaris's family will still talk to him, given the autobiographical nature of his writing. Apparently, they've tried to stop. "More and more of their stories begin with the line 'You have to swear you will never repeat this,'" Sedaris writes.

I beg you, Dad, don't show your nipple!: David Sedaris
Courtesy of Little, Brown
I beg you, Dad, don't show your nipple!: David Sedaris

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Of course, Sedaris has never held to his word. In his latest collection, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, David Sedaris opens up his literary raincoat one more time and exposes his family jewels: his mother, his father, his three sisters. The result is his funniest, most tenderhearted book yet. (His family might disagree.) Here, his father comes across as a tight-fisted, big-hearted dreamer who always promised more than he could deliver. His mother emerges as a shrill-voiced insomniac, forever trying to keep her kids from sliding out of the middle class. And Sedaris's sisters and kid brother act as both cohorts and enemies in his childhood scheme to keep his parents from snooping in his business.

On the page, the family coalesces like a sitcom cast: Their antics are weird enough to produce giggles, but familiar enough to inspire a frisson of recognition. "My parents were not the type of people who went to bed at a regular time," Sedaris writes in "Full House." "My father favored a chair in the basement, but my mother was apt to lie down anywhere, waking with carpet burns on her face or the pattern of the sofa embossed into the soft flesh of her upper arms."

An admitted obsessive-compulsive, Sedaris is uniquely suited to reenter the hyperaware mindset of the adolescent. Dress Your Family is often less of an exercise in self-deprecation than a study in humiliation. In one essay, Sedaris's father storms over to the house of one of David's classmates in paint-splattered pants and a T-shirt that shows his nipple--all this because the kid threw a rock at his son. In "Full House," Mr. Sedaris shoves his son out the door to a sleepover, unaware that spending the night with four boys will be a tightwire act for young David, who already has more than a hunch that he likes boys.

In this sense, the real subject of this book is not Sedaris's family but the author himself, and how he felt about his flesh and blood growing up. Judging by these essays, it appears Sedaris carried around a sneaking suspicion that somehow his family just wasn't good enough. In "Us and Them," he recalls spying on a family next door who had no television set. "During [dinner], Mr. Tomkey would occasionally pound the table and point at his children, but the moment he finished, everyone would start laughing. I got the idea that he was imitating someone else, and wondered if he spied on us while we were eating." Sedaris began watching his neighbors out of pity--they had no television--but he walks away pitying his own family for their dinnertime bickering.

This fear of being mocked--specifically because of his kin--presses down on the young Sedaris heavily throughout these yarns. And what makes Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim so funny is that he finally allows himself to join in with those real and imaginary detractors. It's a tricky act of sublimation, since Sedaris modulates each snarky wisecrack with a glimpse at the real love and admiration he had for his parents. "Slumlordicus" begins as a screed about how his father drafted him into the family business but finishes with a father-son moment tender enough for a Tim Russert memoir.

Although sensitive readers will shed a tear or two, Sedaris still serves up the big yuks--that's what people keep coming back for. In "Rooster at the Hitchin' Post," he describes his brother's wedding. At one point, his sister-in-law's pug takes a crap on the lawn. Without blinking, his little brother snaps his fingers and a Great Dane bounds over and gobbles the mess up in one bite.

Sedaris is aghast. "Tell me that was an accident," he says." "Accident,'" his brother replies. "I got this motherfucker trained,' he said. 'Sometimes he'll stick his nose to her ass and just eat that shit on tap.'"

Sedaris's brother, it would seem, lives by the same credo as the author in the family: If life gives you shit, make a shit sandwich.

 
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