David Sedaris has got a lot on his mind these days. His mom’s ghost, for instance. And a small bit of cancer. And grappling with the suicide of one of his sisters. And arguing with his boyfriend, Hugh. And Trump voters.
In his latest essay collection Calypso, the author’s late mom shows up on occasion in his dreams not to haunt him, but to marvel at the fact that her son managed to quit smoking. “Wow,” her ghostly visitation will ask. “How’d you do that?”
Sedaris, the humor writer and author of Me Talk Pretty One Day among other collections, does not truck much with ghosts. He finds it ridiculous that people believe spirits can enter a house through clothing.
“They can attach themselves to just about anything,” my sister Amy explained. “That’s why a lot of people won’t wear vintage clothes.”
I thought she was making this up, but it’s a real thing, apparently. “Dry-cleaning doesn’t kill them?” I asked.
“They’re not bedbugs,” Amy said. “They’re ghosts!”
The whole subject of ghosts comes up in the chapter “Boo-Hooey,” in which Hugh and Sedaris argue about who will start dating first after one of them dies. (“Don’t you want me to be happy after you die?” I ask. “No,” he says. “I want you to be alone and miserable. And if you do find someone, I’m going to return from the dead and haunt you.”)
Death and the afterlife — in many different guises — are never far from Sedaris’s musing in Calypso. As he now hits age 61, a lifetime spent observing things with a wry, spritely humor has undergone its own fine aging process, like a vintage cellared chardonnay. He will never hesitate to throw an F-bomb or other outrageous comment into the mix, just like in the old days, but now it all comes with a pinch of (hard to even believe this) maturity; a sense that this thing he’s been studying with tongue in cheek all this time is really, it turns out, the very fabric of life.
Exercise — keeping the old carcass in decent condition — has become a bit of a concern, something that he would have laughed at or shrugged off in earlier essay collections. In “Stepping Out,” he discovers the Fitbit. Compulsive at heart, Sedaris can’t cut himself off after the recommended 10,000 steps a day; he wants more. And more.
At the end of my first sixty-thousand-step day, I staggered home with my flashlight knowing that now I’d advance to sixty-five thousand and that there’d be no end to it until my feet snapped off at the ankles.
Some things never change. As always, Sedaris has a gifted ear for voices, and the many voices of America in the Trump era are rendered with brutal clarity, yet also with a degree of sympathy that one wouldn’t expect from a gay liberal East Coast elite who owns a beach cottage he renames “Sea Section.”
Like many Americans, he finds the great divide over the current US president has seeped into his own home: his Greek dad is an unabashed Trump fan. (Whose dad isn’t, for a while at least?) In “A Number of Reasons I’ve Been Depressed Lately,” father and son argue about the “grab her by the p***y” tape released before the US election.
My father shouts, “He’s the best thing that’s happened to this country in years!” and “It was just locker-room talk.”
“I’m in locker rooms five days a week and have never heard anyone carry on like Trump in that video,” I argue. “And if I did, I wouldn’t think, Wow, that guy ought to be my president. I’d think he was a creep and a loser.” Then I add, repeating something I’d heard from someone else, “Besides, he wasn’t in a locker room; he was at work.”
The irony here is that, like Trump, Sedaris is also firmly committed to “creative hyperbole” in his writing. The difference is that his truth stretching is for comic effect, not to avoid being removed from office.
All this bittersweet reflection on modern life pales next to the news that his sister Tiffany, one of six Sedaris children, has committed suicide during the holidays. It leads to some of the more somber passages in Calypso (in one, Sedaris even cops to his own estrangement from his sibling), but as you’d expect, the Sedaris brood find ways to lighten their load through collective laughter.
Calypso is a more wistful book than Sedaris’s past outings, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less funny. Part of his talent — one we saw on display when he visited the Philippines a few years back — is an ability to talk to complete strangers about virtually anything. He would probably call this research, but we’ve met him; he really does like to hear people talk about their own crazy lives. During book signings, he’ll pause a few extra beats before scrawling your message, often with an elaborate drawing to boot (in my copy of Naked, Sedaris drew a Jollibee burger, which he’d sampled that afternoon; the inscription read: “To Scott – A Champ”).
For pure laughs, there’s “And While You’re Up There, Check On My Prostate,” a roll call of insults that Sedaris has collected during his book tours. Most of them involving people’s mothers and inserting various things up one’s anus, sometimes within the same insult. (It turns out Romanian insults take the prize.)
Animals also make frequent appearances in Calypso. They are lent anthropomorphic qualities by Sedaris, who once wrote a book of risqué animal-centered fables. A certain colorful fox populates one essay, dogs appear here than there, and a certain snapping turtle captures his attention when the author finds that he has a benign tumor that must be removed. For reasons that only make sense in Sedaris’s own telling, he plans to feed the removed tumor to a local snapping turtle that lives in a pond near his home, to see if he’ll eat it. But there’s a complication: hospitals, by law, are not allowed to let you take home something removed from your body. “What about babies?” Sedaris fires back.
Not surprisingly, the author shares the story of his tumor with an audience at a book signing one night; and naturally, a complete stranger in the audience later offers to remove the tumor for free (she’s not a doctor, but still). Naturally, Sedaris takes this complete stranger up on her offer. And naturally, he eventually fulfills his goal of feeding it to a snapping turtle.
But really, that’s a whole other story.