David Sedaris is exceptional on two counts: not only is he a best-selling essayist, he's also an American who doesn't drive. In a country where walking is regarded as loitering, cars symbolise freedom. Or perhaps that is, as Sedaris's father would say, "baloney". Readers will be grateful that the author of Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls has no wish to get behind the wheel because many of the strongest pieces in his ninth book feature planes, trains and $100 cab rides. Anyone hoping to find him exploring diabetes will be disappointed, but at least one owl features. Apparently, the title came to Sedaris during a book signing.
Sedaris enjoys meeting people and his encounters usually reflect the cultural climate. In 2008, a Parisian cab driver opines that Americans are too racist to elect Barack Obama. Months later, queuing for a flight in Denver, a moustachioed Republican says: "We've got to take our country back … if votes won't do the trick then maybe we need to use force." Sedaris strikes a more personal note when, recalling a Lebanese student he met on a train 30 years ago, he describes feeling wistful "whenever I hear the word 'Lebanon' or see its jittery outline on the evening news".
Growing up in North Carolina, Sedaris clashes with his father, who is often "sitting around in his underpants and hitting people over the head with spoons". He's 12 when his father tips another member of his swimming team for Olympic stardom. When Sedaris defeats the boy in a race, his father turns to hailing Donny Osmond's genius: "And the hell of it is he's even younger than you are." By the time a budding scientist predicts that human beings will soon live to 200, Sedaris is in his fifties, but he gets "a sickening feeling that the person we were talking about would be my father".
He's funny when tackling big subjects from comic angles. After his school's desegregation in the 1960s, he woos a "250-pound girlfriend from the wrong side of town" to shock his family and deflect questions about his sexuality. Years later, he finds her working in a dime store and wonders, "how could someone on the bottom rung of the ladder not be outraged by the unfairness of it all?"
Meanwhile, he feeds hamburger to sea turtles until they "melt away, like soap" in his bedroom aquarium. The reptiles' plight epitomises an uneasy period, as a friend's father commits suicide and Sedaris interrupts two men in a public toilet. "The men were doing something indecent, and recognising it as such meant that I had an eye for it," he frets.
Sedaris can make writing look easy but Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls is diminished by clumsy forays into fiction. Several pieces, which discuss topical issues from the perspective of gormless conservatives, make the reader impatient for Sedaris to return to writing about his life. When he does, the results are poignant and amusing, but it's hard to recommend a slim volume of autobiography padded with forgettable stories.