Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls is the latest collection of essays and short stories by humorist David Sedaris. If you’re not familiar with him, he grew up in an eccentric but close family with five kids, a chain-smoking mom with a wry sense of humor, and a no-nonsense but over-matched father. Many of his stories revolve around childhood incidents–I generally find these the funniest of the bunch. Others deal with his career as a pretentious but not-especially-talented artist when he was in his twenties, when he worked a series of minimum-wage jobs to pay the bills and lived in Raleigh’s rougher neighborhoods. Still others mine the humor in his current situation as a middle-aged gay American living in London and Paris.
I was once friends with a guy who was always encountering ridiculous situations and acted like a magnet on strange people. Every time I saw him something odd would happen: a pair of very nice but persistent Buddhist monks trying to convince us to give up meat, or a search for a bathroom in a hospital leading us unexpectedly to an operating room where an operation was underway (shouldn’t there be a sign on the door or something?), or a high school runaway teaching us relaxation techniques. Hanging out with him had the same general tone as reading David Sedaris.
A couple stories in this book are especially funny. There’s one about a trip to Australia where an overly friendly waiter lets him hold a kookaburra (a type of bird), and another about a night spent with the drunks in the bar car on a train trip from Chicago to New York. My favorite, though, was the story of the day a kid named Tommy in the neighborhood called his mother a curse word, and his dad dragged Tommy home to put the fear of God in him, only it turned out to be another kid in the neighborhood with the same name. Sometimes the premises alone are funny, but generally the humor is in his observations of absurdist details–the way his dad removes his pants for comfort as soon as he comes home from work and does not put them on again in the evening for any reason, or the restaurant patron carrying around a doll as if it were a real baby. Another frequent source of humor is in the overreactions of the people around him to everyday annoyances.
The book was enjoyable, but I think his earlier books were sharper–especially Me Talk Pretty One Day. I don’t know if he’s actually getting less funny–maybe he used all his best material in the earlier volumes?– or if it’s just because his style is no longer a novelty to me. In his past couple books, I’ve also noticed politics creeping in. In the chapters where this occurs, Sedaris betrays no great understanding of the political scene, and they very much have the feel of an old man grouching about the world going to hell in a handbasket. The man’s entitled to his opinions, of course, but that doesn’t mean they make his books better.
If you’re a David Sedaris fan, you probably already have this–his following is devoted and fairly large, I believe. If not, this isn’t a bad one to start with, but it would probably be worth seeking out Me Talk Pretty One Day or Holidays on Ice, which I think are his best.