|A Review byRebecca James|
|Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denimby David Sedaris
"What would ultimately last were these fifteen minutes on the coastal highway, but we didn't know that then, When older, even the crankiest of us would accept them as proof that we were once a happy family: our mother young and healthy, our father the man who could snap his fingers and give us everything we wanted, the whole lot of us competing to name our good fortune."
These short fifteen minutes, as described by Sedaris, are one of few tangible moments were he and his siblings can claim normalcy throughout their lives. On the surface, many of their struggles, problems, and experiences seem average enough, but Sedaris has a gift for peeling back the film of polite society and exposing what commotion lies beneath. For example, those fifteen minutes? They slowly dissolved like many good fortunes into something plain, rough, disappointing, and pathetically amusing. Instead of the beach house they each tried to playfully name such phrases as The Shell Station or The Ship Shape, their father, never a big mover-and-shaker, whittled the dream down to a pool at their regular house, which eventually materialized as just a wet bar in the basement.
The example serves as a theme for many of Sedaris's adventures: potential that fades into disappointment. Fortunately for his readers, Sedaris's accounts of these failures are as funny as those in his previous book, Me Talk Pretty One Day. His embarrassment is saved by his obvious amusement at his own shortcomings.
Although it takes a while to get started, Dress Your Family takes off when Sedaris gets to his young adult and more recent recollections. He incorporates his first apartment, his first exposure to hippies, his parents' run as landlords, and his exploits as he struggled to make a name for himself. As a budding writer, he cleaned houses and apartments to supplement his income. Often bored by the few personal contacts he had with his clients, he was somewhat intrigued when one long-term client whom he had never met was going to be home on medical rest during his cleaning appointment. He was even intrigued after the man asked him for one small favor:
"'I hate to bother you,' he said, 'but I'm going to lie down for awhile. I've set the alarm, but if for some reason I don't wake up, I'm wondering if you could possibly insert this into my anus.' He handed me a rubber glove and a translucent lozenge filled with amber liquid [...]
I started wondering what I'd do if the alarm failed to rouse him. Which was worseinserting a lozenge into a stranger's anus or feeling responsible when his heart stopped beating? As with most things, I supposed it all depended upon the person. The man had never complained to my boss or asked me to do his laundry, and he had been thoughtful enough to provide me with a rubber glove, so who was I to deny him this one favor?"
Of course, there are other, less physically revolting examples. His descriptions of his siblings are funny but they still ring true. Lisa is oldest, Tiffany the wild rebel artist, while Paul, the eternal meathead, turns out to be the most successful member of their family. Of course, he's raunchy and crass, the opposite of his self-described swishy older brother, but Sedaris seems amazed, or at least dazed, by Paul's accomplishments, including the birth of his daughter: "The baby raised a fist to her mouth, and Paul lowered his head into the crib. 'That's just your uncle Faggot and your raggedy-assed granddaddy talking some of their old stupid bullshit,' he said. And it sounded so...comforting."
Sedaris attempts to mother his brother and sisters, but constantly comes up short, getting himself into more trouble. Whether it's lecturing chain-smoking Tiffany on the importance of linoleum floors, pedicures, and properly attained turkeys, or trying to cultivate a brotherly moment at Paul's wedding, Sedaris fails miserably, but he does cheerfully mock himself and his family for our entertainment.
Finally, Sedaris examines his relationship with his partner, Hugh. Or rather, he examines the fact that their lives are unexamined. After a fight (in French) about a man with a rubber ("No, it was plastic") hand in front of their Parisian friends and neighbors, Sedaris imagines more than actually occurs. In the end, he does what he claims their relationship is built on: he denied the rift and moved on. "In the coming weeks I'd picture the hand waving good-bye or shooting into the air to hail a taxigoing about its little business as I went about mine. Hugh would ask why I was smiling and I'd say, 'Oh, no reason,' and leave it at that."
The absurdity he loves to explore is more the product of his own artificially-constructed family expectations than real events, but that's precisely what makes them funny. Sedaris's writing implies that if we all backed away from our lives for a moment, we be able to witness and contemplate the ridiculousness of life. His brain forges connections and associations between people and events no one would normally link, and the results are very, very funny.
Rebecca James, a high school English teacher in Allentown, Pennsylvania, divides her time between Allentown and Rehoboth.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 13 September 16, 2005