David Sedaris, one of the great American humorists, has reached the age of retrospection. After milking his family and personal life for decades, he is now mining his work for literary gold worth anthologizing. His first retrospective was “Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977–2002)” (2017), selections from his unpublished diaries. “The Best of Me” offers 46 previously published essays and stories curated from nine earlier books, beginning with “Barrel Fever”(1994) and ending with his most recent, “Calypso” (2018).
OK, so technically, there’s nothing new here. But “The Best of Me” is an excellent introduction to Sedaris’ work if, somehow, you’re not among the millions who have made him a mainstay on bestseller lists and flocked to his ticketed readings. Even if you’ve read or listened to every word he’s ever written, it’s a terrific highlights reel and a chance to view the arc of Sedaris’ development as a writer over 25 years.
In general, he’s moved from the often outrageous, escalating rants of unhinged characters, in which he takes an off-the-wall idea and runs with it, to more deeply personal material. Many of these keepers were first published in The New Yorker, beginning in 1995, and show off his mastery of what he learned around his mother’s table, “the real-life story, perfected and condensed.”
Readers may be surprised that Sedaris’ breakthrough, “SantaLand Diaries,” didn’t make the cut. Also missing are stories about bladder control, litter patrol, and obsessive daily step counts. Of the 46 entries, only four are from his first three books. As the author wryly notes in his introduction, “I’ll always be inclined toward my most recent work, if only because I’ve had less time to turn on it.”
Among the earlier work, I laughed hardest at “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol,” a story from “Holidays on Ice” that I’d forgotten. Under the headline, “Trite Christmas: Scottsfield’s young hams offer the blandest of holiday fare,” a pompous critic applies professional criteria to his review of a children’s holiday pageant. He carps hilariously that “one particularly insufficient wise man proclaimed, ‘A child is bored.’ Yes, well, so was this adult.”
Sedaris is never boring. I was especially glad to find “Repeat After Me,” which deserves a place not just among the best of Sedaris, but among the best pieces ever written about how writers routinely trample family privacy in their work. Sedaris calls himself out on his transgressions with self-deprecating humor. His oldest sister, Lisa, he writes, is “afraid to tell me anything important, knowing I’ll only turn around and write about it.” He adds, “In my mind, I’m like a friendly junkman, building things from the little pieces of scrap I find here and there, but my family’s started to see things differently. Their personal lives are the so-called pieces of scrap I so casually pick up, and they’re sick of it.” Needless to say, that doesn’t stop him from whipping out his notebook whenever he’s with them.
Several stories highlight how much his family means to him. In the well-titled “Memory Laps,” another favorite, he recalls fraught swim meets and how his father’s constant dissatisfaction with him in and out of the pool both hurt and spurred him on to an “I’ll show him” attitude. (And show him, he did.) In “Laugh, Kookaburra,” Sedaris recalls an incident for which his father unfairly singled him out for punishment, and deftly connects it with an Australian businesswoman’s recipe for success – cutting off at least one of the “burners” on your stove: family, friends, health, or work. (The infraction involved repeatedly singing “Laugh, Kookaburra” with his sister Amy after being told not to.) Although fuming, Sedaris knew, even at 11, that without family, “I was nothing. ... Cut off your family, and how would you know who you are? Cut them off in order to gain success, and how could that success be measured?”
Reading through this collection underscores how much of Sedaris’ life – and material – involves time spent on airplanes jetting between performances and his various homes. You may not rue being grounded by COVID-19 after reading about some of his crass seatmates, including the tony-looking but foul-mouthed couple who seemed “as if they’d kidnapped the grandparents from a Ralph Lauren ad and forced them into a David Mamet play.”
In a relatively early story, “The Ship Shape,” Sedaris remembers when he and his mother overheard a well-dressed visitor to Raleigh say she had to get back home, or rather, to “one of my homes.” He writes, “We wanted what this woman had.” Specifically, they wanted a beach house on Emerald Isle, off the North Carolina coast, where the family rented a place for a week every September. In 2013, Sedaris, already no stranger to “the rejuvenating power of real estate,” finally did it. He bought a place for his family to gather – an Emerald Isle beachfront property which he dubbed the Sea Section. Of course, it’s also a rich source of new material.
In his more serious moments, Sedaris expresses surprise and gratitude for his good fortune. Even his father, “that perpetual human storm cloud,” has finally, in his late 90s, acknowledged his elder son’s fantastic accomplishments. “The Best of Me” is a well-earned victory lap.
In addition to The Christian Science Monitor, Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times.