David Sedaris’ “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim” is largely a collection of short stories based on Sedaris’ real life and family. His humor is mostly self-deprecating and pokes fun at his middle class, dysfunctional family.
From early childhood in North Carolina to adulthood in Paris, Sedaris continues to recount awkward moments that leave the reader laughing while contemplating the similarities in their own lives. With over seven million books already sold, Sedaris has had widespread success among American readers and critics alike. Sedaris’ humor has often been compared to Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain and even Woody Allen, suggesting that he not only has promise, but that his success is not going to diminish any time soon.
The reader quickly realizes that the source for Sedaris’ material will be his awkward childhood (one that lasted well past his elementary school days), his different occupations, homosexuality and living on his own. As a child, Sedaris contemplates getting his sister hit by a car, “her life hanging by a thread as [his] parents paced the halls of Rex Hospital, wishing they have been more attentive.” He rationalizes, “It was really the perfect solution” to getting back at his parents.
As an adult, Sedaris traveled the world, trying to learn about different countries from taxi drivers. He would ask what any normal person asks in a foreign country: ” ‘What do roosters say?’… as every country has its own unique interpretation.” With further explanation, the reader learns more about a certain country and their customs from Sedaris than they would by traveling there. In such accounts, Sedaris mixes sidesplitting humor with a touch of warmth and understanding about the world around him.
Sedaris began his career on the radio, telling stories from his personal life in five to 10-minute readings, so it is no surprise that his autobiography reads the same way. The short, single-event chapters make for a quick read and leave the reader curious about the realities of his upbringing. Sedaris’ style serves his purpose well because each chapter is like a new story and can be read as if it were a fresh start with each character. Sedaris does not worry about having a coherent plot line for the entire 257 pages and can focus on the humor between each incident.
The downside is that readers looking for some character growth or dynamics may be disappointed. Once the novelty of the humor wears off around chapter 10, the character stagnates and the author begins to rely on his absurd situations to capture the audience. However, do not underestimate the effect of such absurd situations. Readers will find themselves appalled as well as laughing until their sides hurt when Sedaris is mistaken for an erotic housecleaner or when he is driven out of his apartment by a 9-year-old girl.
It is clear that nothing is off limits to the author, much to his family’s dismay. Sedaris clarifies that his family’s “personal lives are the so-called pieces of scrap I usually pick up, and they’re sick of it. More and more of their stories begin with the line, ‘You have to swear you will never repeat this.’ ” Fortunately for us, he does not keep his word. The autobiography is filled with embarrassing stories of his siblings, his parents and often the crazy neighbor everyone hopes to never encounter.
Some have criticized Sedaris for trying to bring humor to topics that are anything but funny. Issues like Anne Frank and pedophilia are fair game for Sedaris. The effect on the reader is a feeling of discomfort and slight shock, but these chapters succeed because the novelty of Sedaris’ humor is continually wearing off. The provocative topics add material for him to explore. When visiting Anne Frank’s hiding place, Sedaris confesses, “the first words that come to mind are not ‘I still believe all people are really good at heart,’ but ‘Who do I have to knock off in order to get this apartment?’ ”
Yet, ultimately to say the book is based on awkward moments and a dysfunctional family is not to say it is without heart. Sedaris takes moments to remember saving his brother from drowning or to remember his brother’s wedding. They are well written reflections on the author’s experiences that go beyond the humor of Sedaris’ commentary, but in the end, the book’s humor outweighs any other positive or negative qualities it may possess.