David Sedaris lives in West Sussex – where he has attained local treasure status thanks to his proclivity for late-night litter-picking – but spent the Covid lockdowns in New York. As a self-confessed attention junkie, the enforced hiatus hit him hard. Of the live audiences he misses, he writes: “It’s not just their laughter I pay attention to but also the quality of their silence” – and you can’t replicate that over Zoom. In this new memoir, Sedaris recounts his lockdown experience with his customary blend of wry self-deprecation and affable misanthropy. He recalls how the pandemic prompted an outbreak of competitive piety – a “new spirit of one-downmanship” – among ordinary Americans: “It was a golden era … for the self-righteous.”
Happy-Go-Lucky is made up of 18 short essays, several of them set in the very recent past, others reminiscing about earlier times: a late-90s sojourn in Normandy; amusing exchanges with taxi drivers in eastern Europe; a visit to a shooting range in his native North Carolina with his sister, Amy. At a graduation address to students of Oberlin college in Ohio he urges the assembled youngsters to reject priggish philistinism: “The goal is to have less in common with the Taliban, not more.”
Sedaris’s stock in trade is the whimsical aperçu. In these pages he ponders, among other things, the curiously old-fashioned names assigned to hurricanes (“Irma, Agnes, Bertha, Floyd – they sound like finalists in a pinochle tournament”) and the practicalities of looting shoe stores (“How … did people find the shoe style they were looking for, let alone the proper size …?)”. He revels in the banal, expounding on such issues as horoscopes, the secret to longevity in relationships, the absurdities of euphemistic language, and the life-changing effects – and commensurately exorbitant cost – of dental surgery.
The focus intermittently switches to more sombre matters, most notably the death of his father at the age of 98. Apparently something of a bully, Lou Sedaris was reduced in his final months to “a pussycat, a delight” and a “gentle gnome”, prompting Sedaris to wonder if “the dear, cheerful man I saw that afternoon at Springmoor [retirement home] was there all along, smothered in layers of rage and impatience”. We learn that his late sister, Tiffany, had made troubling allegations against their father before taking her own life back in 2013. At the time of her death she had been living in such squalor that her bohemian housemates didn’t notice the smell of her decomposing body for five days. (“‘Well, we’re heavy smokers,’ they explained when asked about it.”)
Sedaris doesn’t always come across well in this book: he sounds a bit glib on racial politics, and downright cranky when lamenting the coddled entitlement of the younger generation. He can be petty, too, and bitter, though it is partly because of these flaws that people relate to him. A vague sense of existential cluelessness has always been part of his shtick, embodied in his distinctive vocal delivery – a slightly whiny deadpan that imbues his monologues with bathos. That aural component is, in truth, essential to the Sedaris charm. On the page he’s a somewhat diminished presence: engaging but rarely captivating.