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Family matters in David Sedaris' 'Calypso'

Posted May 27, 2018 6:06 p.m. EDT

David Sedaris gets right to the point in the opening of the first essay in his new book, Calypso: "Though there's an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age. The only perk I can see is that, with luck, you'll acquire a guest room."

Sedaris, a hugely popular performer and bestselling author, has acquired more than a guest room. In addition to homes in England and France, he tells us, a few years back he bought a big beach house on Emerald Isle in North Carolina, where his family vacationed when he was a kid. That house, bought as a new gathering spot for the Sedarises, serves as a center for this collection of essays, his first in five years.

Sedaris has always drawn material for his comic essays from his family -- six siblings who were raised in Raleigh, N.C., by a tough Greek-American father and a charismatic American mother. He has played their eccentricities (including his own) for laughs and poignancy throughout his career.

Calypso is the most family-centered of his books yet and, although much of it is very funny, it's also his most melancholy as it addresses aging and loss: The author is 61, his mother died of cancer in 1991, his youngest sister died by suicide in 2013, and his father is in his 90s.

Calypso ranges across a number of other subjects as well, often with Sedaris' trademark off-center, self-deprecating humor. In "The Perfect Fit" he describes vacations in Tokyo with his sisters and his long-suffering partner, painter Hugh Hamrick.

"Shopping with my sisters in Japan was like being in a pie-eating contest, only with stuff," he writes. "We often felt sick. Dazed. Bloated. Vulgar. Yet never quite ashamed. 'I think I need to lie down,' I said one evening. 'Maybe with that brand-new eighty-dollar washcloth on my forehead.'?"

Those shopping trips have a surreal effect on his fashion sense: "?'What are you doing?' Hugh moaned as I stepped out of the dressing room. 'That's three pairs of culottes you'll own now.'?"

In "Your English Is So Good," Sedaris, whose performances keep him on tour for months at a time, riffs on developing a course he calls American English for Business Travelers, as well as some warnings: "Increasingly at Southern airports, instead of a 'good-bye' or 'thank-you,' cashiers are apt to say, 'Have a blessed day.' This can make you feel like you've been sprayed against your will with God cologne."

"A Modest Proposal" is about his surprising reaction to marriage equality. "The Supreme Court ruling tells every gay fifteen-year-old living out in the middle of nowhere that he or she is as good as any other dope who wants to get married," he writes. "To me it was a slightly mixed message, like saying we're all equally entitled to wear Dockers to the Olive Garden. Then I spoke to my accountant, who's as straight as they come, and he couldn't have been more excited." Despite the tax benefits the accountant touts, Sedaris and Hamrick remain, as he puts it, "engaged, I suppose, our whole lives ahead of us."

One of the loveliest essays in the book, "Untamed," recounts the relationship he develops with a fox that visits the garden of his home in Sussex late at night. Sedaris names her Carol, but he resists sentimentalizing her, knowing that she really shows up because he feeds her.

"That's the drawback but also the glory of creatures that were never domesticated. Nothing feels better than being singled out by something that at best should fear you and at worst would like to eat you."

But most of the essays deal in one way or another with his family. Sometimes they're mordantly funny, as when he tries to get his father to tell him more about his Greek grandmother: "I remember Yiayia saying some pretty rough things about black people, which is odd given her limited vocabulary. It's like she took English lessons from a Klan member but quit after the second day."

But many of them deal, with grief and insight, with his sister and mother. Tiffany, whose history of mental illness and substance abuse dated back to her teens, had been estranged from various family members over the years. For some of her final years she was homeless; she alternately asked for and refused help. Sedaris writes that "at the time of her death we hadn't spoken in eight years."

As so often happens with suicides, it has taken him years to process his sister's death. He writes that he used to think of how, if he killed himself, he'd want to "mess with people" first.

"Only lately do I realize how ridiculous this is," he writes. "When you're in the state my sister was in, and that most people are in when they take their own lives, you're not thinking of anything beyond your own pain."

In "The Spirit World" he describes in stark terms his piercing regret about his last encounter with Tiffany.

"We hadn't spoken in four years at that point, and I was shocked by her appearance. Tiffany always looked like my mother when she was young. Now she looked like my mother when she was old, though at the time she couldn't have been more than forty-five. ...

"There was a security guard holding the stage door open, and I said to him, 'Will you close that, please?' I had filled the house that night. I was in charge -- Mr. Sedaris. 'The door,' I repeated. 'I'd like for you to close it now.'

"And so the man did. He shut the door in my sister's face, and I never saw her or spoke to her again."

He is haunted even more by his mother, whom he clearly adored. When the family scatters her ashes at Emerald Isle, the screaming seabirds evoke a memory. "It made me think of my mother and how we'd follow her even to the bathroom. 'Can't I have five minutes?' she'd plead from behind the locked door as we jiggled the handle. ... My mother died in 1991, yet reaching into the bag, touching her remains, essentially throwing her away, was devastating, even after all this time."

He dreams of her, he tells us, dreams in which he updates her on family news and current events, like explaining what a selfie is. "They're pictures you take of yourself with a phone and send to the people you no longer communicate with by talking."

But his memories are more vivid than the dreams, and it's clear where Sedaris' storytelling skills come from. "Her specialty was the real-life story, perfected and condensed," he writes. "These take work, and she'd go through half a dozen verbal drafts before getting one where she wanted it. Over the course of the day the line she wished she'd delivered in response to some question or comment -- the zinger -- would become the line she had delivered."

That functions perfectly as a description of what Sedaris does when he shapes real experiences into his stories.

His relationship with his father was always more complicated. "I didn't feel completely unloved" by his father, he tells us. "If the house were on fire he would have dragged me out, though it would have been after he rescued everyone else, including the cat and dog." One essay, "The Silent Treatment," includes a horrifying account of how his father punished him for a teenage prank -- then moves to a description of how the two of them bonded over jazz.

The book ends on a quietly devastating note, with the essay "The Comey Memo." In earlier essays set at the beach house, we see Lou Sedaris as a still energetic fellow in his 90s, bossy as ever and arguing vehemently about politics with the author, but mellower than in the past, greeting everyday pleasures with a hearty "Fantastic!"

Then Sedaris describes visits with his siblings to their father's house, the one they grew up in. He refuses offers of help and attempts to move him to assisted living, insisting he's fine. His house, fit for an episode of Hoarders, tells another story.

Earlier, Sedaris describes the experience of walking home to his beach house in the dark, trying to spot it without familiar landmarks. Then he imagines strangers looking for their own house and passing his.

"If it was smaller than the Sea Section, or less well positioned, they maybe looked up into our gaily lit windows and resented us, wondering, as we so often did ourselves these days, what we had done to deserve all this."

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Calypso

By David Sedaris

Little Brown and Co., 259 pages, $28