Published by Little, Brown, and Company
Review by W. R. Greer
My first real introduction to David Sedaris was picking up a copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day to read while traveling. Sitting in an airport for hours waiting on a delayed flight, I was laughing myself silly in public. By the time I reached my destination, my sides hurt and I had a big, goofy grin on my face. While David Sedaris's recounting of different adventures and times of his life may be seen as essays or memoirs, he's really a humorist or comedian. He knows how to craft his stories about strange events and the people in his life and present them in a way that is both thought-provoking and funny, at times generating guffaws of laughter with his prose. Based on my experience with Me Talk Pretty One Day, I was eagerly looking forward to reading Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Once again, I cracked open the book while sitting in an airport and found myself laughing out loud in public, at times forcing myself to stop reading because I could no longer see the words due to the tears in my eyes.
For those of who haven't read any of David Sedaris's books, or heard him on NPR, this is the basic information about his life that should be known before reading this book. He's the son of an IBM engineer who moved his family from Binghamton, NY to Raleigh, NC when David was a boy. He has three sisters and a brother, and many of his stories revolve around this oddly-behaved family, although you get a sense that he sees their oddness as normal. David Sedaris is gay, a fact he's known since he was a young boy. He spent part of his young adulthood as an artist, a performance artist, and a drug addict. His long-time partner is Hugh and they live together in France.
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim recounts different experiences from all stages of David Sedaris's life. Some of the behaviors he details are universal, ones where the reader nods his head in acknowledgement of perhaps doing the same thing. There's his mother making small talk with neighbors they don't really know:
Out in the hallway I could hear my mother straining for something to talk about. "A boat!" she said. "That sounds marvelous. Can you just drive it right into the water?"
"Actually, we have a trailer," Mr. Tomkey said. "So what we do is back it into the lake."
"Oh, a trailer. What kind is it?"
"Well, it's a boat trailer," Mr. Tomkey said.
When their mother locked them out of the house during a snowstorm to get a little time to herself, the children decided the way to strike back was to have one of them lie down in the street and get run over by a car. They pass the privilege down the chain to the youngest sister:
Amy, in turn, pushed it off onto Tiffany, who was the youngest and had no concept of death. "It's like sleeping," we told her. "Only you get a canopy bed."
Other chapters in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim are a peek into an event or a mindset that most of us haven't experienced. Aware of his homosexuality as a boy, David Sedaris finds himself forced into a strip poker game at a slumber party with other sixth-grade boys. His two main concerns are hoping to hide from the others any erection he might get, and hoping his underwear is free of skidmarks. As a young adult, he dropped out of college, was unemployed, using drugs, and had moved back home. His father called him into his study one evening and kicked him out of the house.
I wouldn't know it until months later, but my father had kicked me out of the house not because I was a bum but because I was gay. Our little talk was supposed to be one of those defining moments that shape a person's adult life, but he'd been so uncomfortable with the most important word that he left it out completely, saying only, "I think we both know why I'm doing this." I guess I could have pinned him down, I just hadn't seen the point. "Is it because I'm a failure? A drug addict? A sponge? Come on, Dad, just give me one good reason."
Who wants to say that?
Not all the stories in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim are funny, some are a combination of poignant and sad. Like his humor, these all serve to highlight those moments in his life that end up defining him a person. David Sedaris has not only the talent to recognize these moments, at least in hindsight, but to spin them in his unique fashion to make them seem universal to the rest of us. Other times we laugh along with him, incredulous at the behaviors he sees in others, but with a wink to ourselves that says under those circumstances, we might do the same. His brother, whose speech is constantly sprinkled with profanities, tries to make his infant daughter's electronic phonetics game says dirty words. Unfortunately, he was outsmarted by a children's toy that knew what he was trying to do and it would giggle with each profanity he tried to type in.
I could go on quoting passages from this book. Every chapter has a scene or a few paragraphs that catch you by surprise and make the laughter suddenly burst forth. By the time my flight had reached its destination, the other passengers were used to me laughing out loud, and I'd finished Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Let me quote one last passage, the sentence that begins the final chapter:
I was on the front porch, drowning a mouse in a bucket when this van pulled up, which was strange.
It's sentences like that grab your attention with his off-kilter way of telling about his life that makes you want to find out what it's all about. Fortunately, David Sedaris continues to deliver on the promise with more interesting, funny, and thought-provoking parts of his life. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is a welcome addition to his private literary genre and a gift to the world that can always use more laughter. My time spent with David Sedaris passed too quickly, but this is a book that can be read again when a dose of laughter is needed. If you haven't read any of his work before, this is a fine place to start. If you're a fan of David Sedaris, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is one you must read.
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