David Sedaris seeks catharsis in ‘Calypso’

“Calypso” (Little, Brown and Co.), by David Sedaris

“Though there’s an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age.”

So begins David Sedaris’ first collection of essays since 2013, firmly grounded in the present, but with the same sense of twisted nostalgia that has always marked his best work.

The setting for many of these stories is a place in the Outer Banks of North Carolina that Sedaris bought in 2013 after his sister Tiffany committed suicide. Adhering to the tradition of naming summer homes, he calls it Sea Section. “I told myself when I was young that one day I would buy a beach house and that it would be everyone’s, as long as they followed my draconian rules and never stopped thanking me for it,” he writes.

The family — four surviving siblings now and a nonagenarian father who has almost made the journey from aloof breadwinner to lovable curmudgeon — gather in the home for holidays and vacations. And it’s in those moments that Sedaris is at his best, observing his oddball relatives. On Lisa’s gift for talking to strangers: “I left her at a Starbucks for ninety seconds last year, and when I returned the woman behind the counter was saying to her, ‘My gynecologist told me that exact same thing.’ “ On Paul’s middle-aged fitness obsession: “(He) has all but given up solid food, and at age forty-six eats much the way he did when he was nine months old. … Everything goes into his Omega J8006 — kale, carrots, celery, some kind of powder scraped off the knuckles of bees — and it all comes out dung-colored and the texture of applesauce.”

Sedaris saves some of the most poignant recollections for his father. “The Silent Treatment” takes readers back to when the author was 11, dropping toilet paper rolls into the john just so his father first had to get the plunger, then when that didn’t work, remove the entire tank and unclog the drain. “You are going to reach down into this pipe and pick out that cardboard roll,” his father said after Sedaris was caught. “And there it has been ever since, sorting through our various shit,” concludes Sedaris.

Tiffany’s fate is never far removed from any of the tales. In “Now We Are Five,” Sedaris shares a moment from the first Thanksgiving without his sister. “Why do you think she did it?” he asks his father and his partner, Hugh, before continuing inside his head, “How could anyone purposefully leave us — us, of all people? This is how I thought of it, for though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost faith in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else.”

“I don’t know that it had anything to do with us,” says his father. “But how could it have not?” continues Sedaris in his thoughts. “Doesn’t the blood of every suicide splash back on our faces?”

The best stories here are the work of a man seeking catharsis by coming to terms with tragedy the only way he knows how — storytelling. For the reader, they’re even more than that — a chance for us to know once and for all that our families aren’t nearly as messed up as we think they are.