What is it that's so seductive about David Sedaris? The careful, quiet voice saying the unsayable? His precision? The way his writing grabs you, simultaneously, by the funny bone, the throat and the heart, like a mugger with an extra arm – one with more function than the mummified half-limb he describes in the essay "Understanding Understanding Owls"?
Sedaris is on a quest to buy the perfect Valentine's gift – a stuffed barn owl – for his boyfriend and tracks down a taxidermist who "does" owls. Ultimately, he has to settle for a tawny, but not until he's experienced the disorientating effects of being "recognized for the person I really am". Along with the severed forearm, the taxidermist shows him the 400-year-old head of a teenage girl and the skeleton of a pygmy, hunted down in the nineteenth century. Sedaris feels as if the man has "looked into my soul," and seen that he was "the type who'd really love a pygmy and could easily get over the fact that he'd been murdered for sport".
Romantic, shocking and punctuated with the kind of funnies that, if you're reading while eating, make you snort food through your nose, "Understanding Understanding Owls" is one of (many) highlights of Sedaris's ninth book, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls. Another is "Memory Laps", in which the essayist returns to the home turf that supplies so much of his material. This time, he takes us to his (second division) country club with its "chemical bath" swimming pool.
Young David S. makes the swimming squad, but only ever wins when he's in the relay team. Meanwhile, his father, Lou, is so impressed with a swimmer from a competing club that he goes on and on about the boy. "'Man alive, that kid is faaaantastic.'" Young David S. is envious. He does mean things to his sisters to distract his father. Time passes and he starts to notice that this other boy, Greg, isn't that good. And one day he beats him. And still, his father seems unimpressed: "that was, what—one time out of fifty?".
Reading all this feels a bit like watching a surgeon at work. Or a vivisectionist. Until the final paragraph, that is, where Sedaris unexpectedly pulls focus, and explains that the "crummy side of swimming is that while you're doing it you can't really see much: … you can't pick things out—a man's face, for example, watching from the sidelines when, for the first time in your life, you pull ahead and win."
Most of this collection is as perfectly judged and carefully nuanced. The only off-key parts are the six short monologues Sedaris has written for teenagers to "deliver before a panel of judges", when they're participating in something called "Forensics … a cross between speech and debate". Short, pithy and voiced by shrill caricatures with no self-awareness, they may well be perfect for their natural habitat. But, alongside Sedaris's infinitely more variegated essays, they stand out like, well, shrill caricatures with no self-awareness.