Introductory Comments by David G. Hallman for
The Toronto Gay Men’s Literature and Arts Salon (Zoom Edition)
September 15, 2020
I’ve never really gotten David Sedaris, or more accurately, I’ve never really understood all the hype round him. “Calypso” is the fourth Sedaris book that I’ve read preceded by “Naked” (1997), “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” (2008), and “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls” (2013). I saw him live 8 or 9 years ago at what was then called the Sony Centre. The hall was sold out, packed with adoring fans.
I’ll grant you that he can be very funny. There’s a point in the short story “I’m Still Standing” where he is arguing with his husband Hugh about Hugh’s obsessiveness with privacy when he’s in the bathroom.
Hugh won’t even let me in when he’s peeing. I’ll call from the other side of the door. “I had that in my mouth ten minutes ago and now it’s a private part?” Hugh yells back, “Yes! Go away!”
Sedaris’s humour often has a dark side as is characteristic of much satire. I relish darkness in writing styles but I’m not as attracted to it when it veers toward cruelty. In “The Spirit World” he talks about how he sometimes plays with audience members at book signings by pretending to know things about them like their astrological sign or about their family.
I met a young woman a few years back, and after being right about both her sign and her sister, I said, as if I were trying to recall something I had dreamed, “You were in a…hospital earlier this week, not for yourself but for someone else. You were…visiting someone very close to you.” The woman fell apart before my eyes. “My mother has cancer. They operated but…How do you…I don’t…What are you doing?” “I can’t help it,” I told her. “I know things. I see them.” I don’t, of course. Those were just guesses, pulled out of my ass in order to get a rise out of someone.
It’s one thing to have a nefarious fictional character in your story but when you’re describing a real-life experience of your own and then not to express any remorse about having played a mean trick on someone … well, I find that off-putting.
Sedaris does have that wonderful gift as a writer to take mundane day-to-day situations and describe them in such a way that I as a reader become totally engrossed. He’s nowhere near a Proust in that skill nor does he come close to my current favourite Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard who, like Proust, can write for pages and pages about something as trivial as waiting for a friend to show up at a café and after reading his prose for half an hour I look up from the page, shake my head, and try and figure out how I got so swept away in his writing about something so seemingly inconsequential.
Sedaris’s writing about the quotidian does have an intimacy to it on numerous dimensions: he’s brutally candid about his own foibles including for better or worse, his scatological ones; he’s mercilessly descriptive about his family’s eccentricities; and he’s totally matter-of-fact about his life as a gay man and his relationship with Hugh. This personal and familial intimacy in his stories is more evident in “Calypso” than his earlier books.
His style as a humourist, his ability to describe the ordinary in interesting ways, and the intimacy of his stories make “Calypso” an engaging read. But is it great writing? Apparently many of the hundreds of thousands who buy his books and attend his readings think so. I just don’t think that I’m one of them.
But, and this is a “but” that overrides much of my lack of enthusiasm for Sedaris as a writer, I’ve come to appreciate through reading “Calyspo” how courageous Sedaris is. He’s a little man physically, as he regularly reminds us, but he seems to have an innate strength and fearlessness to toss his vulnerability out onto the table for all to see. The prime case in point for me in “Calypso” is his descriptions of his relationship and interactions with his sister Tiffany, her struggles with mental health issues, and her eventual suicide. His writing about the alcoholism of his mother is also poignant but it didn’t resonate with me as much. I did not have an alcoholic parent whereas I did have a sibling who committed suicide.
The last time I saw my sister Tiffany (Sedaris writes) was at the stage door at Symphony Hall in Boston. I’d just finished a show and was getting ready to sign books when I heard her say, “David. David, it’s me.” We hadn’t spoken in four years at that point, and I was shocked by her appearance. Tiffany always looked like my mother when she was young. Now she looked like my mother when she was old, though at the time she couldn’t have been more than forty-five. “It’s me, Tiffany.” She held up a paper bag with the Starbucks logo on it. Her shoes looked like she’d found them in a trash can. “I have something for you.” There was a security guard holding the stage door open, and I said to him, “Will you close that, please?” I had filled the house that night. I was in charge—Mr. Sedaris. “The door,” I repeated. “I’d like for you to close it now.” And so the man did. He shut the door in my sister’s face, and I never saw her or 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. I couldn’t deal with her anymore. “Well,” the rest of my family said, “it was Tiffany. Don’t be too hard on yourself. We all know how she can be.”
This is what happened. Sedaris doesn’t softpeddle it. He tells it like it is. He doesn’t describe his residual persistent guilt. He doesn’t have to. It’s there, unmistakably there.
I’ve done a lot of writing but I have not written about my younger brother’s suicide except for a short reference in my memoir “August Farewell” about my partner Bill’s sudden pancreatic death in which I mention that my brother Rick took his life in January 2009, six months before Bill’s death in August 2009. There would certainly be lots to write about: the deep depression that Rick went into after retiring from a senior academic position in New York City, a depression that he hid from everyone except his wife who was forced by him to keep it as a secret; about Rick’s sudden disappearance from their home in Brooklyn leaving behind a suicide note saying that he was driving to Canada; about his phone call late that night to me, the last person he spoke to; about him being found the next morning hanging from the back of his hotel room door in Waterloo, our family’s home town; about my meetings two days later with the police who investigated and the funeral home once his body had been released by the coroner; about the memorial service that I organised and conducted in New York City the following week on behalf of his traumatised wife; about Rick’s appearance to me in a dream several weeks later in which he calmly told me “I can explain”, a dream out of which I awoke screaming with anger and was held for hours by Bill as I wept.
I have not written about my brother’s suicide. Yet. I am working on a book, but only for myself, not for publication. I’m calling it “Brushes with Death.” It will have five chapters. The first is on my testing positive for HIV in 1993. The second is about Bill’s and my caregiving for our parents as they aged and died. I’ve written those first two chapters. The third will be about Rick’s suicide. The fourth will be about Bill’s death. And the fifth will be about my open-heart surgery last year.
David Sedaris has given me a gift in writing about Tiffany in “Calypso”. For that I’m very grateful.