The Best of Me

David Sedaris’ “The Best of Me” is revelatory. It is so, not only in its clever and poignant injection of humor in the quotidian, but it also allows you to spot common themes and track the author’s development in this compilation of “best-of” material from previously published works that wouldn’t be gleaned in any one book. It is, as a result, more memoirist than his other titles, spanning a longer swath of time and giving somewhat equal features to the various members of his family. “The Best of Me,” therefore, feels more personal and elucidating of the author himself—perhaps, showing his best parts?

In form, it is a series of essays and short stories that the author has selected from prior books and magazine publication, excluding ones many in his fan-base consider more iconic. One such missing essay from his earlier work that, for me, cemented his comedic brilliance and ability to make the mundane interesting and entertaining when I first read it in 2000, was Big Boy in “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” where he finds a mammoth turd floating in a toilet that refuses to be flushed after excusing himself to go to the bathroom at a friend’s dinner party. With other guests knocking at the door, he has to think creatively of how to discard the dastardly thing lest anyone there think it was of his production. Instead, here, in “The Best of Me,” the carefully selected stories revolve around topics that are less splashy and bombastic. Their humor and meaning seem to ooze on the page rather than splatter.

A few such stories that stood out in the collection included the Understudy about a yellow-wigged barrio babysitter from hell in whose care his parents had left him and his middle-class siblings for a weekend. To the children’s consternation, they were banished to eating sloppy joes as their only meal and to their sitter’s servitude, fetching her beverages, brushing her hair and endlessly scratching her back, as she lay prostrate in their parents’ bed in nothing but a slip, the details of which don’t seem to faze his mother when she returns.

Then, there is Town and Country about the illusion of appearances, where the author first interacts with a seemingly sophisticated couple, presumably in first class, traveling on his flight whose debased vocabulary betrays the cashmere sweater and tweed jacket they wear, saying when handed their meal: “What is this garbage?”…It’s shit”… “A box of absolute fucking shit,” that devolves into more churlish behavior. This is followed by an account on the same journey of a nosy and heavily accented New York City cab driver, who boasts of his female conquests, questioning if a gay Sedaris’ reticence to speak to him about his sexual adventures is because he doesn’t like to “fucky-fuck” instead of dismay and condescension. Later that day, Sedaris and his sister rifle through an animal porn magazine, putting into question his grounds for having a superiority complex towards his fellow pilgrims earlier that day. At least, he bemused, he was drinking scotch rather than the uncultivated whiskey his foreign cab driver had recommended.

And thirdly, Nuit of the Living Dead, the recounting of the night a family in a car, lost in the Normandy countryside, encounters him on his front porch drowning a mouse that got caught in a trap and whose circumstance Sedaris has made worse in trying to free it. The family is unaware of the ensuing theriocide, but as Sedaris tries to hide these details, he has to go about the task of helping them with a map, being more hyper aware of the ghastly paraphernalia strewn about the house, such as a book about guns and firearms, a random meat cleaver and meat hooks that catch the interest of one of his night visitors.

For those familiar with Sedaris’ works, it need not be said that he likes to write about absurdities, be it of people or of circumstances, many of which are artfully captured in the more fictional tales. But what becomes apparent in this presentation is that a lot of his stories come from his experience in the midst of travel, or feature people on a journey, whether physical or otherwise. It seems there’s a lot of comedy happening in coach. But first class might be where the shit is at.

Seeing the work arranged in this way also makes you take stock of the tremendous daily journaling that Sedaris must do in order to capture the simplest description and conversation, which would be challenging to remember or pitch right with any significant passage of time. It hearkens thoughts of the social media epoch we are in where life is documented for likes daily and ephemerally rather than lived, but here Sedaris’ cataloging of experience commands adroitness, exactitude, a point; something to create whimsy or to sit in the reader’s craw.

More remarkable are the stories about the author’s family whose portrayal in this telling shows a development of personalities, sometimes from childhood. There are his siblings: Amy, Gretchen, Lisa, Paul and Tiffany whose grudges, worries and rivalries are captured, even at their detriment (they have grown weary of cohabitating around their brother for fear of making more unflattering appearances in his books). There is his long-time boyfriend Hugh, who hovers like Sedaris’ shadow throughout mostly because Hugh’s psychology is never breached or examined closely like the others and who comes across as a dutiful, supportive partner fully enmeshed within the family. There is a tender relationship with his mother, whose unhealthy use of alcohol is questioned in earlier works until in essays written later on, we see how it devolves into full-blown belligerence and addiction that Sedaris contemplates an intervention. There is also antipathy with his father whose acknowledgment, support and praise Sedaris felt like he never got throughout his childhood, even into his adulthood when he becomes a successful writer, until his father lay on his deathbed, telling the author, finally, “I want to tell you…you…you won,” about which David Sedaris is still unsettled as to its meaning. We learn of the tragic suicide of his sister Tiffany and the death of his mother in between tales of talks with spiritual mediums and stories about the author’s own health battles.

What is most surprising about witnessing these intimate vignettes of family life is the author’s candidness about certain unflattering parts of himself, including mentioning how he had the door shut in his then years-long estranged sister’s face because of interfamilial feud when she came to see him at a reading of a recently-published book—the very same sister who would later take her life. It had been the last time he had seen or spoken to her, as he describes: “I never spoke to her again. Not when she was evicted from her apartment. Not when she was raped. Not when she was hospitalized after her first suicide attempt. She was, I told myself, someone else’s problem.”

He admits to having a fascination with ghoulish things, saying of a taxidermist he had visited for a stuffed owl to gift Hugh and who had shown him human remains for purchase, “he looked into my soul and recognized me for the person I am: the type who’d actually love a Pygmy and could easily get over the fact that he’d been murdered for sport.” Also, Sedaris admits to a fascination with “the abnormal” and has a “willingness to accept and sometimes celebrate evil.”

In various stories he speaks of classist behavior he displays in how he views people of little means, including Tiffany who becomes homeless and digs through rubbish for food at some point, while recognizing that his life of relative privilege was one that at least was not his mother’s birthright.

Then there are various usages of the N-word. No, not that one: “Negro,” which he uses to describe Black people that, especially in these politically-charged times, is out of place and can also be triggering to some, such as “Negroes in the Gentlemen’s room” in the essay Loggerheads describing two Black guys having oral sex; the “Negro porters settling spoiled passengers” in a Modest Proposal as a metaphor for gay artisans whose industry often go unrecognized like Black servants of another era; or “Snow Negroes” in Let It Snow, which is a term he used as a child growing up in Binghamton, New York, to describe that substrate when scant snow mixes with mud. He does use the word “Black” at times to refer to Black Americans, so the usage of “Negro” seems almost gratuitous. In all of these accounts, Sedaris shows an emotional detachment that is raw and unfeeling. Could it be, that by way of subversion, the inclusion of all of the aforementioned questionable qualities are there also to illustrate these “best” parts of him? Again, this perspective might go unnoticed in the individual books and essays, but are laid bare as a collection.

“The Best of Me” succeeds because it’s not easy to write about minutiae with such interest, wit and depth, let alone with epistolary flare, especially not if you only write about the best parts. All together, these individual “best” parts cobble the full man in his sardonic and comedic glory.

About this book

  • ISBN:9780316628242
  • Price:$30
  • Page Count:400

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