by Helen Zaltzman)
David Sedaris's voice is familiar to listeners of This American Life or Radio 4's Meet David Sedaris: arch, insinuating, slightly world-weary as it winds itself around childhood recollections, awkward moments, modern fables. Written down, in his latest collection of essays Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls, the humour becomes sharper, the veil of melancholy heavier.
Beneath all the wryness and self-deprecation is an undercurrent of carefully controlled anger. He constructs a persona to survive as a physically puny, secretly gay child in 1960s Raleigh, North Carolina – "Is this how a normal boy would swing his arms?… Is this how he'd laugh? Is this what he'd find funny?" But then, as now, Sedaris is a resolute outsider, always observing and meticulously chronicling everything in the diary he has kept since 1977. "It's not lost on me that I'm so busy recording life, I don't have time to really live it."
All these superficially insignificant memories are preserved for later examination, like the dead animals that are a recurring theme – Sedaris seeks a rare stuffed owl as a gift for his partner, Hugh; his sister Gretchen carries around a jar full of dead insects to study. A joyous moment swimming with a giant sea turtle in Hawaii reminds Sedaris of how, aged 10, he captured a clutch of baby sea turtles and kept them at home for weeks, giving them minced beef to eat until their tank turned into a rancid turtle graveyard.
Feeding a kookaburra bird outside an Australian restaurant summons the time he and his sister Amy sang The Kookaburra Song over and over again in bed and earned a beating from their father. "What would strike me afterwards was the innocence of it. If I had children and they stayed up late, singing a song about a bird, I believe I would find it charming."
Indeed, Sedaris Senior seems to find nothing charming. He appears a menacingly authoritarian figure even though he is usually striding around wearing only his underpants, and his son is painfully aware that he can never please him. Since Sedaris captures such emotional fallout with exacting candour, it's jarring to arrive at one of the collection's six fictional stories and find the narrator brash and aggressive compared with the usual Sedaris satirical subterfuge. Nonetheless, his acuity is out in force in this book, as painful as it is playful.