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If you’re an avid David Sedaris fan like I am, you might have wondered how he spent his time during lockdown. Look no further than his latest essay collection, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, to find out. In this latest compilation of personal essays, Sedaris turns his sardonic gaze on the pandemic, aging, long-term relationships and, of course, his eccentric family.

Like many of us during the last two-plus years, the humorist found his work greatly impacted. Although primarily known as a writer, he normally spends most of the year on the road, doing appearances and readings all over the world. Beginning in March 2020, he pondered how the pandemic would affect his livelihood: “On the best days, I’d remind myself that everyone was sitting at home, that this was just a temporary setback. A part of me worried, though, that when the world eventually moved on it would do so without me, or at least without any particular need of me. The circus would take to the road again, but not with this elephant.”

During this trying time, our country also experienced a fraught election, and although Sedaris never gets very political, this changing of the guard afforded him a new sensation --- a fair amount of trust in a leader’s capability: “When the new President speaks, I feel the way I do on a plane when the pilot announces that after reaching our cruising altitude he will head due north, or take a left at Lake Erie. You don’t need to tell me about your job, I always think. Just, you know, do it.” 

"In this latest compilation of personal essays, Sedaris turns his sardonic gaze on the pandemic, aging, long-term relationships and, of course, his eccentric family.... This is a much more serious and sober Sedaris than readers are used to seeing."

Now in his 60s, Sedaris offers his unique perspective on getting older and how romantic relationships ebb and flow. Worrying about your longtime partner might demonstrate itself in a different way: “Gretchen and I were on the beach together, and I remembered a young woman earlier in the summer who’d had a leg bitten off, as well as a few fingers. Squinting at the horizon as Hugh grew smaller and smaller, I said that if the sharks did get him I just hoped they’d spare his right arm. ‘That way he can still kind of cook and access our accounts online.’” Just when you think he might veer off into sentimentality, bam!

But perhaps the most gut-wrenching pieces involve Sedaris’ father, who died in 2021 at the age of 98. For years, Sedaris had written about him with comic aplomb, as a rigid skinflint who monitored the appearances of his daughters with the fervency “of a pimp’’ --- a statement that readers now might find chilling after reading this collection. In the essay, “Pussytoes,” he seems to be processing some long-held resentment in the wake of his father’s death: “As long as my father had power, he used it to hurt me. In my youth I just took it. Then I started to write about it, to actually profit from it. The money was a comfort, but better yet was the roar of live audiences as they laughed at how petty and arrogant he was.”

When Sedaris’ sister, Lisa, was a teen, their father asked to photograph her topless in the nearby woods. “It’s art photography, not smut…this is strictly professional.” When she declined, he recoiled, telling her not to get too stuck-up about it. “All you’ve really got is your long hair.” At the sight of another daughter in a bikini, he would exclaim, “If only I was thirty-five years younger.” His children would write off the behavior as their dad just being a creep. They knew he found currency in the attractiveness of his children, proudly basking in the glow of their good looks.

Years later, Sedaris’ sister, Tiffany, accused their father of sexual abuse. When asked about it, she couldn’t recall specifics, and the siblings dismissed her as an unreliable narrator after seeing her struggle with drug abuse and mental health issues over the years. Sadly, Tiffany died by suicide in 2013. (Sedaris wrote about her death in the heartbreaking essay, “Now We Are Five,” which first appeared in The New Yorker in October 2013). After her death, he wondered what his father must be thinking: “There can’t be anything worse than losing a child, but on some level mustn't our father have been relieved? This person who calls you on the phone every morning and harangues you, threatens you, is gone now. The car alarm that was your daughter is finally shut off, the cable cut.”

It’s hard to know why Sedaris decided to share this personal information now, but regardless of the reasoning, it does color how you view these family members we’ve come to know (or think we’ve known) through his essays.

This is a much more serious and sober Sedaris than readers are used to seeing. He’s always been painfully honest in his writing, never shying away from the unflattering or uncomfortable. But the essays “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Lady Marmalade” and “Pussytoes” really dive into the deep well of familial trauma.

Visiting his father towards the end of his life, Sedaris recalled, “Then he turned to me. ‘David,’ he said… ‘You’ve accomplished so many fantastic things in your life. You’re, well…I want to tell you…you…you won.’… I couldn’t tell if he meant ‘You won’ as in ‘You won the game of life,’ or ‘You won over me, your father, who told you --- assured you when you were small and then kept reassuring you --- that you were worthless.’ Whichever way he intended those two faint words, I will take them, and, in doing so, throw down this lance I’ve been hoisting for the past sixty years. For I am old myself now, and it is so very, very heavy.”

Perhaps HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is Sedaris’ way of setting down that heavy burden. 

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on June 10, 2022

by David Sedaris

  • Publication Date: May 30, 2023
  • Genres: Essays, Humor, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 031639243X
  • ISBN-13: 9780316392433