The renowned humorist showcases his evolution in a strong new collection
Two things David Sedaris is talking about more than he used to: Donald Trump and death. The essay collection Calypso, his first in five years, finds the beloved humorist rejiggering his tone — right along with much of the country — to meet a newly somber national mood. Or maybe it’s just the shadow of late middle age: the looming reality of mortality, the increasing pervasion of funerals and illnesses and retirements in one man’s orbit. It’s hard to tell exactly from where the motivation for the shift stems. And indeed, therein lies Sedaris’ genius — he reflects the culture inwardly. Through his peculiar mind, Sedaris captures biting truths, documenting with journalistic precision his quiet public indignities and milking them for all their tragicomic worth.
This time, he’s just leaning a smidge more into the tragedy part. Sedaris (Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day) has been at this game for decades now, and each book’s fresh publication calls for celebration among his many ardent fans; his influence in the entwined fields of observational humor and social commentary is scattered everywhere across a new and exciting writerly landscape, from Maeve Higgins to Samantha Irby to Michael Arceneaux. Sedaris encourages specificity by committing himself to it with a matter-of-fact verve. Those who’ve read him for a long time, traced his literary ascension and journey of getting older, feel a certain kinship. It’s for those most loyal readers, especially, that Calypso (of which some stories had previously been published) will be met with little surprise and utmost understanding — as the emotional unburdening of a friend, a companion, who’s gotten them through some tough times. They’ll best detect when he’s getting grim, padding a morose thought around layers of ace one-liners.
While Calypso features Sedaris’ signature wit, its effect has changed. At its best, his humor buttresses a sadness here, a longing. His piece on his sister Tiffany’s suicide gets right at the heart. His ruminations on his parents, bathed in distance and regret, convey a painful familiarity. Even the fairly minor goodies in the collection, such as the first story — a tale of couples bickering, sibling awkwardness, and vacation ennui — are garnished with crumbs of ache.
Sedaris writes about the 2016 election too, succumbing to a sort of new essayist cliché, but he does so in a fashion that’s true to Calypso’s spirit. As he considers his relationship with his conservative father, and the power of politics in driving a permanent wedge, he reaches ambiguous but searing conclusions about connecting to what we’re losing, and healing what’s broken before it’s too late. B+