Happy-Go-Lucky by David Sedaris review – laughter in the dark

David Sedaris got his start in comedy as Crumpet the Christmas elf, campily dancing attendance in Santa’s grotto at Macy’s department store while clad in green knickers and a spangled bonnet. As he recalls in his first book, Barrel Fever, his merriment with the squalling brats and their bossy mothers barely concealed his outrage.

No longer elfin, Sedaris has matured into a devilish imp who scourges human folly and filth. In his later books he listens to strangers apoplectically effing at each other in the street, visits “a mall with cancer” in Manila, where every shop is an excrescent tumour, and dodges buoyant turds at his local swimming pool. “Grotesque is a plus,” he announces when browsing in a Notting Hill antique shop, which prompts the owner to bring out a French rococo snuffbox carved in the shape of a hunchback straining over a bowel movement. As seen by Sedaris, the deformed, indecent, preposterously decorative figurine is the embodiment of our species.

Sedaris presents himself as a damaged specimen, scarred by a cantankerous father and an alcoholic mother, hen-pecked by four domineering sisters, additionally suffering from a lisp, a nervous tic and the usual addictions. All the same, this feisty fellow has undertaken to set the world to rights through comedy. His recent volume of diaries, A Carnival of Snackery, surveys a panorama of “war and calamity – natural disaster, mass migration, racial strife” and asks whether humour can make these afflictions endurable. In Happy-Go-Lucky, his new collection of autobiographical sketches, he broods about the cosmic injustice of Covid-19: noting that a million Americans died in the pandemic, he fumes that he didn’t get to choose a single one of them.

Though Sedaris may want his words to hurt, even kill, they often rebound. At breakfast in a Washington hotel, he watches a woman set a plate of bacon and eggs on the carpet to feed her guzzling terrier. He refers to her as “the whore”, while another guest who joins her to coo over the “fur babies” she has left at home is “a jism-soaked hag”. Yet it’s only on the silent page that he defames them: the whore and the hag remain unscathed while Sedaris seethes. At an autograph session in California, a customer bustles to the front of the long queue, claiming that as a senior citizen she’s entitled to priority. Sedaris writes “You are a horrible human being” in the book she buys; when she laughs, he says he meant it, at which she laughs again. How does a comedian convince people that he’s not joking?

The happy-go-unlucky Sedaris is forever being frustrated, humiliated or downright annihilated, and the mishaps he chronicles probably explain why readers feel so fondly protective towards him. In France, before learning the language, he “can’t get a laugh to save his life”: it’s an existential predicament, because he feels he has forfeited “my thing, my identity” and is not “recognised as a whole person”. At home he’s reduced to nonentity by an obnoxious seven-year-old guest. To correct the boy’s insubordination, Sedaris declares: “I’m rich and famous.” Unimpressed, his tormenter demands proof. Sedaris says he writes books. “Well, I never heard of any of them,” the child sneers in triumph.

Shopping in New York, Sedaris is outwitted by his sister Amy, an actor and writer whose dangerously free spirit prompts him to introduce her, with a twinge of alarm, as “a comedy person”. Amy first stages a tantrum by hurling a Balenciaga dress to the floor after being told that it’s reserved for someone else. Then, rallying a crowd, she loudly blames Sedaris for the imaginary stench in a toilet where he has taken a discreet, non-odorous pee. “For the second time that afternoon,” he confides, “not unhappily, I died.” That startling phrase is deliberate: Sedaris is happy to jest about disaster. Watching his husband, Hugh, wade into the Atlantic surf, he remembers that on the same beach a woman recently had a leg and some fingers chomped off by a shark; he hopes that if Hugh is mauled his right arm will be spared, so he can still cook their meals.

In a mock-solemn mood, Sedaris asks: “Doesn’t all our greatest art address the subject of death?” Perhaps so, but tragedy has no monopoly of mortality; comedy may be a better guide to living with the certainty of extinction. Four years ago in Calypso, Sedaris seemed to be edging towards reconciliation with his nonagenarian father and grieving over the death of his druggy, distressed sister Tiffany, but Happy-Go-Lucky instead documents the jocular horror of their last days. Blood dripping from his father’s ear resembles beet juice, fluid drained from his lungs is “ale-coloured”, and his frayed eyelashes are “tired of holding on”. Sedaris is also nonchalant in referring back to Tiffany’s “second suicide attempt – the successful one”, after which her body is left to decompose in a sweltering apartment. The two woozy men who share her abode explain why they didn’t notice the posthumous smell: “We’re heavy smokers,” they shrug in a ghoulish laugh line. Despite his claim about the greatest art, the artistry of Sedaris is an anaesthetic that numbs him to pain, and he’s wryly amused when Hugh accuses him of “wishing I would get Covid just so you could write about it”.

Happy-Go-Lucky begins and ends with Sedaris considering an armed response to our crazed world. He first apes what cops call an “active shooter” at a firing range in North Carolina. He is dragged there by his sister Lisa, who fancies acquiring a handgun for self-defence, but while Lisa’s bullets puncture the heart of the man-sized cardboard target, Sedaris farcically misfires, spraying his ammo far and wide. At the book’s conclusion, he drives through rural Indiana past shops selling crackers, sparklers and rockets to be set alight on 4 July. Viewing these establishments as symbols of combustible America, he dismisses fireworks as “guns for children”. It’s a telling remark: his wickedly hilarious riffs are pyrotechnics in words, although when the aerial explosions fade he can’t help noticing that nothing has changed on the mucky ground below.

That might be why, since settling in West Sussex in 2010, Sedaris’s hobby or mission has been to collect rubbish dumped along country roads. When not travelling between sold-out international gigs, he dirties himself as his bleeding hands grope in blackberry bushes for fast-food containers and bags of dog poo. As he says when Tiffany blackmails their father by claiming that he sexually abused her, people are “trashy”. If satire can’t goad us into reforming, Sedaris can at least clean up the mess we so squalidly strew behind us.

Happy-Go-Lucky by David Sedaris is published by Little, Brown (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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