DAVID SEDARIS IS a household name thanks to his books, radio pieces on This American Life, and contributions to the New Yorker. I’ve received scrutiny from many snooty dates for the assortment of his short story collections on my bookshelf, but I can’t deny that Holidays on Ice hits so close to my own work experiences that if I hear it in passing I get a stomachache. A major strength of Sedaris’ prose is that it goes down easy. It sounds like a conversation. He starts telling one anecdote, then segues into another until the piece takes on the complexity of Sedaris’ overlaid ideas. He’s also undeniably laff-riot funny, and I think that makes him easy to dismiss. But often, he is slyly profound.
In 2004’s Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Sedaris describes the early fame he received after reading a story on NPR’s Morning Edition. At the time, he was an unpublished writer, so he was described as a New York house cleaner. Sedaris began receiving calls from people wanting their homes cleaned which led to his being confused for an erotic house cleaner at least once. He vacuumed in uncomfortable silence while a nearby customer masturbated. In the sort of fugue state one enters while trying to ignore an unwelcome masturbator, Sedaris digressed into a description about his childhood family housekeeper, Lena Payne, and his mother’s instructions that Payne “use a mop. [...] that’s what I do” while cleaning the floor. (This leads to my favorite David Sedaris motto: “either you want a clean floor or you want to use a mop but you can’t have both.”) After relating this, Sedaris returns to the masturbator reality and accepts his payment, feeling he has behaved as his housekeeping idol would.
Sedaris reveals his family as an enclave of American eccentrics, and through them a philosophy emerges. It’s like what J.D. Salinger was trying to achieve with his fictional Glass family in Nine Stories, but the Sedaris family is real. The veracity of Sedaris’ record has gone through questioning and seems to straddle non-fiction/exaggeration, with his siblings largely supportive of their characterizations. The family is sharp (that’s just their style) but Sedaris portrays them so to better understand them and be understood himself. There’s a permanence to Sedaris’ attitude. The world is a bizarre and tragic place but, more often than not, we can find something to laugh about.