David Sedaris doesn't write like a writer. He writes like someone who writes for a living. That's a different thing, and not necessarily a bad one: Sedaris can be the life of your two-person party if you turn to his essays for quick, easy diversion and nothing more. But only a man with column space to fill would devote the first eight pages of a book to the experience of having dental work done in France.
"Dentists Without Borders" is the opening selection in Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls, Sedaris' latest collection, replete with previously published work. (Nearly half these riffs have appeared in The New Yorker.) It's not a particularly auspicious kickoff. Sedaris enjoyed his French dental visits, but he wouldn't sell many books on the basis of reader interest in his gum disease. His best-seller-dom has more to do with his entertaining public persona and better, earlier work.
An explanation of his strategy appears in "Day In, Day Out," one of this book's few originals. It describes his decades of diary keeping, and how he compulsively saves odd bits of information.
"Even if what I'm recording is of no consequence, I've got to put it down on paper," he explains. What becomes of such snippets? Treat them as essay ingredients. Oddball minutiae are to Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls what raisins are to raisin bread.
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The bulk of this book concerns Sedaris' famously antic family, his longtime partner and his health, politics, childhood, hometown (Raleigh, N.C.) and travels. He composes columns skillfully enough to mix several of these subjects in a single entry, like "Memory Laps," which begins with swimming, then segues into how his Greek grandmother came to live with his family after she was hit by a truck. When Sedaris, then a child, offered to stay home with her to help her avoid accidents, his mother replied: "The hell you will. A nice steep fall is just what I'm hoping for."
The same piece then moves on to the Osmond Brothers, because the senior Sedaris, who had no soft spot for little David, had a Donny Osmond fixation. "Donny's the thunderbolt," Sedaris recalls his father as saying. "Take him out of the picture, and they're nothing."
This book's longer pieces, like one on the elaborate consequences of Sedaris losing his passport, are its draggiest. His thoughts on picking up roadside rubbish are as dull as the subject suggests.
Why is this book called Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls? Not for any good reason. It includes a creepily unfunny piece that links taxidermy with Valentine's Day, but that doesn't count for much. All the title is really about is attracting attention. In his workmanlike way, Sedaris is still pretty good at that.
'Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls'
By David Sedaris
275 pp. Little, Brown & Co. $27.