Abacus (2006, first published 1999), 138 pages
Unknown Bookshop, €10
This slim volume contains five pieces (three fiction and two non-fiction) that capture Sedaris’ characteristic biting satire (with a sweet centre). It is the two non-fiction tales, “SantaLand Diaries” and “Dinah. the Christmas Whore” that stand out. “SantaLand Diaries” describe Sedaris’ job as a Christmas elf at Macy’s. Sedaris was thirty-three when he started the job and he manages to retain a sense of optimism few others could muster at having to dress as an elf for money. Sedaris recounts the bizarre behaviour of parents, their children, other elves and the various Santas. Sedaris witnesses racist parents, he trys to keep his cool as a child repeatedly throws a quarter at him, and a Santa who refuses to ever act as anyone other than Santa. In between all the madness Sedaris succeeds in showing that for all the strangeness there is also genuine hard work and love by the workers for the SantaLand visitors. Some workers show great kindness to disabled children and recognise the importance of their lowly paid job to the SantaLand visitors.
“Dinah, the Christmas Whore” goes back to Sedaris’ teenage years and he is shocked to discover a new side to his sister when she rescues a prostitute from her drunken boyfriend. It is Sedaris’ Wildean eye for the surreal details of human behaviour that sets him apart from most writers. The background details always take second place to the descriptions of his characters. Dinah’s drunken boyfriend is comically evoked, “He was dressed casually in briefs and a soiled T-shirt and had thin hairless legs the color and pebbled texture of a store-bought chicken. We had obviously interrupted some rite of unhappiness, something that involved shouting obscenities while pounding upon a locked door with a white-tasseled loafer.” (p.83-84)
The other three stories are amusing and satirically originally but lack the punch of his two non-fiction pieces. There has been some criticism that Sedaris’ anecdotes take certain liberties with the facts. This misses the whole point of anecdotes. No reader is actually expecting every detail of Sedaris’ writings to stand up in a court of law. Sedaris has a unique view of life and the strange behaviour of the human animals that roam the surface of the earth. A well told humorous tale will contain a certain element of exaggeration and caricature.
SantaLand Diaries well worth reading for “SantaLand Diaries” alone and makes a perfect gift for Christmas for anyone you know with a biting sense of sarcasm.