Aurthor's Switch from Humorist to Satirist Is Not Unwelcome
by Allison Johnson
Oct 28, 2004 | 83 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, the title of David Sedaris' new book, screams of familial mediocrity and belies this new collection's truly absurd, unusual and bizarre content. Corduroy and Denim are so blasé, so normal, so middle-class average, and yet the characters Sedaris describes in his essays are anything but. There's the hoofed sister with tar paper for a kitchen floor who eats a frozen turkey dug out of a garbage can and announces that she hasn't cleaned her house because "I don't give a f$%* what you think of my apartment. I didn't really want you here in the first place."

Swearing is a common sibling trait, as his brother Paul effusively illustrates in another essay where, before his unborn child is the size of a peanut, he's bought the entire set of Baby Einstein videos and says, "I don't care if it's a boy or a girl, but this little son of a bitch is going to have brains." Sister Lisa teaches her parrot words of comfort to soothe her at various stages of her insecure life, while his fascinating mother comes off as alternately harsh, such as when she kicks her kids out of the house during a snow day, and maternal, such as in the essay where she provides a critical shoulder for Sedaris to lean on and ultimately convinces him to leave the housing tenement where a lonely 9-year-old-girl is just moments away from ruining his life. The father is a dickering, bickering, near-con artist, while Sedaris himself is considered "the one (in the family) most likely to set your house on fire."

Anyone who loved Sedaris' previous works, including Me Talk Pretty One Day, Holidays on Ice, or Naked will find Sedaris in top form in this new collection. But they also are in for a surprise. While Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim offers several trademark essays on various absurdities in Sedaris' life (a stint as a house cleaner where he's mistaken as being from an erotic housecleaning service comes to mind), many essays veer more towards the genre of memoir with less humor and more melancholy, angst, and personal revelation than readers are used to.

With pity and childish fascination, Sedaris starts off the book by examining a family who comes off even more odd than his own by showing up to trick or treat the day after Halloween thus forcing the Sedaris children to relinquish some of their horde. In the next essay, he discusses family dynamics during their vacations to the beach and his father's habit of promising what he couldn't deliver. "We grew to think of him as an actor auditioning for the role of benevolent millionaire. He'd never get the part, but liked the way that the words felt in his mouth." Other essays explore Sedaris' childhood experiences from his first slumber party to his remembrances sucking up to a wealthy great aunt to panhandling as a hippie.

In "Consider the Stars" his initial joy and ultimate humiliation after being hit by a rock thrown by a popular boy in school is palpable. It's bad enough that his dad suggests he "clock him on the snot locker," causing Sedaris to wonder, "Who did my father think I was? Boys who spent their weekends making banana nut muffins did not, as a rule, excel in the art of hand-to-hand combat." When it turns out Sedaris needs a root canal, the ultimate parent confrontation at the offending boy's house is mortifying.

Even as Sedaris ages the situations don't get much better and his siblings seem to be struggling as much as he is – except now there's someone writing about them.

"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. More and more often their stories begin with the line 'You have to swear you will never repeat this.' I always promise, but it's generally understood that my word means nothing."

In the course of his own life, as detailed in these essays, Sedaris often comes across as selfish, pitiable, stubborn, and irrational, as in one essay where the house-hunting obsessive compulsive fixates on wanting Anne Frank's abode. There are many similar moments of the absurd, such as when he tries to drown a mouse or is tempted beyond rational thought to touch people's heads, but the overarching sense that will remain when the book is completed is one of melancholy more than humor. For Sedaris, who has made his career as a humorist and satirist, this enormous shift to the more personal side is an unusual but not unwelcome change.
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