Pick up David Sedaris’ new book and you’re staring at death. If the van Gogh painting of a skeleton gracing the cover doesn’t say it clearly enough, the fact that the skull is smoking a cigarette should.
The image, from a postcard Sedaris picked up in a museum store, hints at the themes that set this sixth collection of essays apart from previous Sedaris books. This is an older, more thoughtful writer who, after years of proffering stinging barbs, cigarette perpetually in hand, realizes he’s not immortal.
So he quits smoking. Eases up on the sarcasm. Considers the hard knocks dealt to some of the unfortunate misfits who cross his path — after ripping them to shreds. And he just plain obsesses about death.
“To be young and bratty, that’s OK. It’s funny,” the 51-year-old author says in an interview with The Associated Press. “To be old and bratty. …” Well, that’s simply wrong.
Devotees who got hooked on Sedaris’ biting humor in “SantaLand Diaries” — the 1992 essay about his stint working as an elf during Christmas at a Macy’s department store that launched him into national prominence — will feel a change in tone.
He’s still the funniest guy around, hilarious enough to make you want to call your friends, book in hand, and read pieces out loud trying to mimic his deadpan delivery. He hasn’t lost the gift of cracking open mundane frustrations, such as sitting next to an annoying person during a long plane ride, to reveal the gleaming kernel of absurdity.
But this more mature Sedaris will surprise readers by being kinder. More considerate. By pausing, in the midst of tearing apart some bystander, to mellowing down — Sedaris says he’s being “fairer” — comes with a realization that he’s vulnerable as well.
“It’s ‘Golden Rule’ writing,” he says. “I think, ‘What if it was about me?’ “
In “Memento Mori,” his obsession with death — and with Sedaris, nothing that could become an obsession worth mining for laughs is allowed to remain a passing thought — is overt. He describes his antagonistic relationship with a skeleton he bought as a gift for his long-suffering partner, Hugh. From the corner where it hangs in their bedroom, the 300-year-old body talks to him. Like Edgar Allan Poe’s raven, the skeleton has only one thought:
“You are going to die.”
Begging, pleading, offering to help it understand the wonders of modernity — for example, television — or trying to convince the ancient being that he invented television himself to comfort the old and sick wins Sedaris only a small measure of forgiveness.
“You are going to die … someday,” the skeleton concedes.
The book wraps up, fittingly, with “The Smoking Section,” which delves into the painful details of Sedaris’ successful effort to quit smoking.
Tallying up the cost, he figures it cost him about $20,000 to quit, between tickets to Tokyo — where he chose to go cold turkey — hotels, nicotine patches and the rest.
He calculates he’ll recoup the cost if he manages to live another 17 cigarette-free years — writing all the while, he hopes. (Reprinted from CNN.com)