David Sedaris is a funny writer, and in some circles, he is the funny writer. Now living in England, Sedaris is familiar to American audiences. We love his wry voice telling stories on the New Yorker Radio Hour. He makes his readers happy. In Calypso, his eleventh book, Sedaris writes about traveling and shopping with his sisters, weighs in on politics (“A Number of Reasons I’ve Been Depressed Lately”), and muses on his decision with his perfect partner Hugh not to get married. But Sedaris also goes dark. He’s still funny, but if Calypso is reminiscent of anything, it’s grieving and then laughing in spite of ourselves.
Sedaris has written much about his family, and in Calypso he explores the adjustments they have made after the deaths of his mother and of his sister, Tiffany. Sedaris’s mother died after warring with alcohol for much of her life, and his sister committed suicide. In one of many factual, sad sentences, Sedaris remarks, “A person expects his parents to die. But a sibling? I felt I’d lost the identity I’d enjoyed since 1968, when my brother [his youngest sibling] was born.”
In one of the more lighthearted essays, “Stepping Out,” Sedaris takes us down what seems to be a humorously pointless ode to his Fitbit. He’s obsessed with using it to track his steps as he cleans up the roads of Sussex where he and Hugh live. Eventually, Sedaris gets up to sixty thousand steps in a day, which, as he notes, is twenty-five-and-a-half miles. This takes time, and that’s the point:
I listen to audiobooks and podcasts. I talk to people. I learn things: the fact, for example, that in the days of yore, peppercorns were sold individually, and because they were so valuable, to guard against theft, the people who packed them had to have their pockets sewn shut.
Even as Sedaris uses self-deprecating humor to mock his Fitbit addiction—going through the devastating loss of the piece of technology when it dies—we’re reminded that maybe the entire point of this essay is that living life takes time. And it might be worth the time to sit and read something just for the laughs, just as it might be worth the time to take an extremely long walk through the English countryside to meet your neighbors.
In Calypso, Sedaris also explores aging. While he takes cheap shots at himself in essays like “I’m Still Standing,” and in the title essay, “Calypso,” where he develops a sudden fascination with doctors and minor surgeries while on a book tour in the United States, Sedaris also frankly describes the life and hoarding lifestyle of his elderly father. Sedaris’s relationship with his father serves as a road marker throughout this collection. Even as he mourns his mother and sister and tries to bring the family closer (at one point, he buys a family beach house which he proudly names the “Sea Section”), Sedaris also reflects on his childhood relationship with his father and the ways they’ve disappointed each other in adulthood and learned to coexist. In “The Silent Treatment,” Sedaris reflects on the only way he didn’t rebel against his father: music. Even though they can barely hold a conversation about the music itself, listening to Jessica Williams, Sam Jones, Eddie Higgins, and other jazz artists is “a bill guaranteed to really shut us up for a while.” He explains his father’s deteriorating health, his loneliness, and in the closing essay, “The Comey Memo,” Sedaris writes about the conversations that they no longer need to have—about his mother’s alcoholism, or Trump’s election. Instead, he focuses on trying to accept his father’s awkward attempts at gift-giving, including outdated nature calendars, a straw hat, and two Brueghel posters. Part of the magic of David Sedaris’s work stems from the simple truth that you really can’t laugh heartily until you’re hurting deeply.
Calypso is funny precisely because so much of its subject matter is so dark. Watching our parents age and remain racist, trying to understand why a sibling killed herself, coming to terms with the state of America today and with one’s own mortality—these topics don’t often make for cheerful reading. But what happens between those big terrible moments does make for laugh-out-loud writing. In the title essay, Sedaris has surgery to take out a benign tumor because he’s aging, and you don’t mess with random growths when you’re aging, but he also chooses to feed his removed tumor to a snapping turtle. It’s ridiculous, and it’s funny. If Calypso is concerned about anything, it is slowing us down to notice how ridiculous life can be, but also how it is very worth the many chuckles and tears.