Books

Calypso :
David Sedaris and the Loss of Two Women

Most memoirs concern family, and David Sedaris’s Calypso is no exception. Though not officially a memoirist, Sedaris has long integrated his personal life, including his relationships with his six siblings, his parents and his boyfriend Hugh, into his humorous essays. Through the years, his readers have gotten to know the quirks and family lore as well as the classic tragedy that has afflicted this Greek-American clan.

I’ve always thought of David Sedaris as a young man, but suddenly he is in his sixties, living with Hugh in an idyllic cottage in rural Britain. There he writes, Hugh paints, and David spends more than six hours a day collecting trash along local roadsides. Having always been frank about his neuroses, he makes no apology for his obsessive traits, but instead presents himself as a man who has made peace with his need to do certain odd things. The British government has even recognized Sedaris for his contributions to rural beautification.

The author is less reconciled with the turmoil in his family. Though more often played for laughs than otherwise, we recognize the grief he feels still over losing his beloved mother at the age of 62, in 1991, to lung cancer. Shannon’s hard-drinking, chain-smoking ways have always been a delightful presence in Sedaris’s stories, which make clear that she was the source of the acute funny bone he shares with his sister, Amy, an actress, playwright and comic. The Sedardis kids all doted on their mother, who was sharp and incisive, dedicated to her kids and much more relaxed than her right-leaning husband, Lou, who survives her. David Sedaris writes about family dinners in The New Yorker:

“It was fun to hear what our mom might come out with. “I got them laughing,” was a popular line in the stories she’d tell at the end of the day.”

Shannon was clearly the spoke of the Sedaris family wheel, the one who kept her brood of wildly disparate individuals bonded together. She did not live to see his great success, sadly, though one gets the impression that she already loved him as if he were a star. Now financially golden and as the eldest son, David Sedaris has cast himself in a caretaker role. In this book, many stories are loosely organized around a beach cottage in Emerald Isle, North Carolina, called “The Sea Section” that he bought for the family to have a place to meet together on vacations.

As children, the kids were packed up in their station wagon each summer for an annual weeklong vacation at a rented cottage along this coast, and their memories, especially of their mother, are sharp and poignant. Now, they gather along with spouses and nieces and nephews, and with their father Lou, healthy and somewhat softened in his mid-nineties. Hugh does the cooking, and David assigns bedrooms and arranges activities, some with typical Sedaris nuttiness. For example, he writes of his growing attachment to a hideously deformed snapping turtle in a nearby creek, and of his determination to be able to feed this omnivorous reptile a benign tumor David needs removed. It turns out it is illegal for doctors to release body parts or tissues to their patients, so David allows a strange woman he has just met to operate on him in her home. He survives, obviously, departs with the tumor in hand, but when he goes back to the creek, he finds the turtle has died.

Strange and even disturbing as that story might be, Sedaris has a matter of fact way of presenting these details, asking the reader almost (but not quite) to say, “well, yes, that makes sense.” But one of his siblings had demons that were harder to live with than his. His youngest sister, Tiffany, has made appearances in his stories throughout the years as she struggled with the various ailments of people who can’t find their way in life: mental illness, addiction, and even homelessness.  She committed suicide in 2013 in a rented room in Somerville, Mass. David had not seen her for eight years at this point.

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