Monday, May 16, 2011

People Are Crazy: A Review of David Sedaris' Barrel Fever

Title: Barrel Fever
Author: David Sedaris
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (1994)
Pages: 196
How I Came By This Book: One of my co-workers suggested last year that I read one of Sedaris' books. I absolutely loved it and decided to raid the library I work at for as many others as I could get my hands on. I just now got around to reading this one.

Synopsis: In David Sedaris's world, no one is safe and no cow is sacred. A manic cross between Mark Leyner, Fran Lebowitz, and the National Enquirer, Sedaris's collection of essays is a rollicking tour through the national Zeitgeist: a do-it-yourself suburban dad saves money by performing home surgery; a man who is loved too much flees the heavyweight champion of the world; a teenage suicide tries to incite a lynch mob at her funeral; a bitter Santa abuses the elves.

David Sedaris made his debut on NPR's Morning Edition with "SantaLand Diaries," recounting his strange-but-true experiences as an elf at Macy's, and soon became one of the show's most popular commentators. With a perfect eye and a voice infused with as much empathy as wit, Sedaris writes stories and essays that target the soulful ridiculousness of our behavior. Barrel Fever is like a blind date with modern life, and anything can happen.

Review: David Sedaris has become one of my favorite writers. He's funny, he's brutally honest, and he looks at life through a unique lens that I've grown to love. But I'll be honest: if this had been the first book by Sedaris that I read, I probably wouldn't have found any of this out because I wouldn't have been tempted to pick up another of his books ever again.

Okay, so it wasn't unreadable. In fact, it was often funny and it did shed a light on the stupidity in society, something that I've come to appreciate in his works. But it was just so...dark. And not in a good way because, believe you me, I like dark. Just not this brand of dark.

I think perhaps that my issue is that I like his essays much more than his short stories. He is a brilliant essayist and that's what I've been used to with the last several books that I've read by him. Barrel Fever is mostly short stories, something that I'm afraid he doesn't excel at. A lot of the stories seemed to be repetitive and many of them were too disturbing to be truly funny.

David Sedaris: the man who shouldn't write short stories.

Not all of them were horrible. The last two stories in the book were incredible. "After Malison," which tells the story of a young woman obsessed with an obscure contemporary author, featured a character with a distinct voice who was so delightfully hipster (before there even were hipsters) that I couldn't help but love it, especially at the end when she gets her comeuppance. The titular story, "Barrel Fever," revolves around the alcoholic son of a racist woman who named him, of all things, Adolph. Yup, as in "Hitler." He's such an awful guy but the story is so funny and it really points out a lot of the insanity present in society. Other than these two, however, I really didn't like any of his short stories.

His essays are a completely different ballgame. The last thirty or so pages in the book are essays and they are definitely the Sedaris that I know and love. One of my favorite quotes in the book comes from the essay entitled "Diary of a Smoker:"
The trouble with aggressive nonsmokers is that they feel they are doing you a favor by not allowing you to smoke. They seem to think that one day you'll look back and thank them for those precious fifteen seconds they just added to your life. What they don't understand is that those are just fifteen more seconds you can spend hating their guts and plotting revenge. (p. 152)
Sedaris is at his best when he's talking about himself. His self-deprecating humor and his hilarious family stories (featuring, among others, his sister, actress Amy Sedaris) are much more impressive than his lack-luster, completely off-color short stories. It's one reason why I'm glad that so far this is the only book I've read by him that isn't completely essays.

Amy Sedaris

Would I recommend this author? In a heartbeat. Go and read him right now. Would I recommend this book? Probably not. I'd say that if you do read it, just skip the first hundred-fifty pages and go straight to the little grey box towards the end that denotes where the short stories stop and the essays begin. Definitely read "SantaLand Diaries" because it's hysterical. There are, however, much better books out there by Sedaris, like Naked and When You Are Engulfed in Flames, both of which I highly recommend.

I have Me Talk Pretty One Day bandying around my house somewhere and eventually I'll get my hands on a copy of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim so this won't be the last you'll see of Sedaris on this blog. This is one book by him, however, that I won't be rereading anytime soon.

I give Barrel Fever 3 out of 5 Gabriels but it only gets that many because the essays are great.


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