It’s been a long four-year wait since David Sedaris fans had a new collection of essays to add to their collections, though they haven’t wanted for much. Even a global pandemic putting a stop to (much) of his celebrated public readings hasn’t slowed the presses with the career-retrospective The Best of Me and double-dose of diary volumes (and more appropriate career-spanning) with Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) and A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries (2003-2020).
Happy-Go-Lucky contains 18 new-ish pieces culled from The New Yorker, Elle, Vogue UK, and Amazon Original Stories, his first collection of essays since 2018’s Calypso. He doesn’t break any new ground here, but longtime followers will appreciate the intimacy he shares with them, as well as expected Sedaris-styled observations like being confused for Dave Chappelle, hoarding (poorly) during a pandemic, disappointment with lazy protestors, shopping with sister Amy, dirty jokes, and how strolling through an empty New York isn’t as bad as it sounds.
More than anything, it serves as Sedaris’ epitaph for the late Lou Sedaris, documenting the final days of a man whose lifelong mistreatment and disappointment in his son was both a constant source of misery and, in the fullness of time, an exercise in literary catharsis.
I suspect this might be a divisive release for Sedaris, possibly the closest to “controversial” his work could face since his brush with a less than politically correct take on Chinese cuisine (as seen in 2013’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls). Readers should be aware when beginning “Lady Marmalade” and wondering how it refers to the Labelle song (not the covers, mercifully) that there are allegations, or insinuations, of childhood sexual abuse within the Sedaris family.
Where this could be controversial isn’t just how Sedaris waited, intentionally or not, to address the subject until both his father and sister Tiffany were deceased, but in his measured recollections of whether or not the alleged abuse even took place. He questions whether his father’s behaviors towards his children were more than just misconstrued or inappropriate. For some, even the act of questioning this narrative will be unforgivable.
Contrast this with an earlier essay, “Bruised”, where he describes a failed attempt at being seduced (awkwardly) by an adolescent boy while vacationing in France. Our current cultural climate might have you think that even relating such stories, where heterosexual coming-of-age stories are still common and openly celebrated (re: 2021’s Paul Thomas Anderson-directed Best Picture nominee, Licorice Pizza, as a recent example) but where even mentioning homosexual awakenings can be seen as endorsing abuse.
Moreover, Sedaris comes to accept the turnover in their strained relationship, that his father no longer holds any power – or influence – over him. Even if he never actively sought it, having the acceptance of his last remaining parent clearly held more importance than he may have realized, imperfect as it could only be.
When his dying father tells him “you won” he questions whether to take it as an apology or a final act of surrender, ultimately compromising for the sake of his own morality – and mortality. “Whichever way he intended those two faint words, I will take them and, in doing so, throw down this lance I’ve been hoisting for the past sixty years. For I am old myself now, and it is so very, very heavy.”
The recent publication of Sedaris’ diaries, particularly last year’s Carnival of Snackery, puts his more obsessive fans at a slight advantage for much of Happy-Go-Lucky as they’ve already seen variations on many of these essays before, sneak peaks and cutting-floor stuff. Still, it’s fun to compare the material’s gestation from journal to finished product, if only to get a better sense of how Sedaris (and his editors) mold his scribbles into their final form.
Somehow, through it all, he manages to filter these events through the same sardonic lens of self-effacement and bitchy humor that’s made him a beloved voice to millions, and those who’ve been on this journey with him this far won’t be disappointed. At this point David Sedaris is either a friend, a neighbor, or just that crazy guy picking up trash by the highway. Regardless of which Sedaris is “your” Sedaris, there’s plenty of family baggage to unpack in Happy-Go-Lucky.