Incuriosity is not one of David Sedaris’s flaws, and in this second tranche of his diaries, his appetite for observing the absurdities and idiosyncrasies of his fellow humans is deliciously rampant. Take the drivers who ferry him from airport to hotel to performance venue and finally back home – one of whom confides in him the affair he had with Whitney Houston in Nevada when riding with the Hells Angels, while another describes an uncle whose baby son had his arms chewed off by pigs (“Oh, how I hated getting out of that car”). There is nothing too macabre, too gross or, indeed, too mundane to capture his attention. And over the course of nearly two decades, as Sedaris moves from his early 40s to his early 60s, and acquires homes in rural Sussex, coastal North Carolina and uptown New York, there is no sense that he is becoming jaded.
To read these entries – some of the more boring ones omitted, Sedaris explains in his introduction, but otherwise free of retroactive editing – is to become complicit in a high-wire act: appreciating his appreciation of weirdness and recognising it for the voyeurism it sometimes is, balancing his enthralment to observation with his more active poking of the hornet’s nest, his amused indulgence with something a little less benign. Therein, of course, lies Sedaris’s edge; a flâneur in Comme des Garçons who doesn’t so much cross the line as vault it in search of another one.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in his interactions with the audiences who pack out theatres and then queue for hours to chat with him. In Pennsylvania, a 19-year-old asks him to inscribe a copy of his book When You Are Engulfed in Flames to his mother with “something shocking and offensive”. After a moment’s consideration, Sedaris picks up his pen: “Dear Mary Lou, I wrote. Your son Jesse left teeth marks on my dick. I handed it back and realised by the look on his face that by shocking and offensive he’d meant ‘lightly disturbing’.” What Sedaris has – and one of the many reasons I and his multitudes of fans haven’t derived similar fame and fortune out of seeing a dead pigeon in the street – is follow-through. He really commits to the joke. In Boston, he randomly asks a young woman at his signing table when she last touched a monkey. “I expected ‘Never’ or ‘It’s been years’, but instead she took a small step back, saying, ‘Oh, can you smell it on me?’” It transpires that Jennifer works at Helping Hands, an organisation that trains monkeys to be service animals, and later sends Sedaris a picture of one reading a copy of his book. He immediately fires off a donation, subsequently visiting their centre (“Which one is the ugliest?” he asks, and is told that they don’t use words like that, before they point one out) and inviting a monkey to join him at a bookshop event where, naturally, she upstages him. Sadly, health and safety regulations preclude Sedaris hiring her as a regular sidekick.
The diaries are not all shtick. Although they are clearly written with a reader in mind – on the most basic level, they contain little bits and pieces of explanation and scene-setting that would be unnecessary in a completely private journal – they are frequently in a far less antic register. Unsurprisingly, Sedaris hits this minor key most movingly when he is writing about his family, in particular the death of his sister Tiffany, who killed herself in 2013. He gets the news while boarding a plane to Baton Rouge, and decides on the flight that it must be a practical joke that will lead to a reconciliation, “a mean joke, but forgivable”.
That evening, staying “at a dismal Marriott on the highway with a minifridge and a window overlooking a Hooters billboard”, he signs books for hours at a Barnes & Noble, concealing what has just happened to him from a legion of fans but unable to stop his mind from whirring. “‘You look fantastic in that tunic,’ I said, and ‘What’s your take on sausage?,’ remembering the time Tiffany joined me at the Brookline Booksmith and told everyone who came through the line that they had beautiful eyes or the world’s most perfect hands. She was wild that night and had her friends distribute cards that read TIFFANY SEDARIS, DAVID’S LOSER SISTER. MOSAIC ARTIST. I saw her only once after that.”
The presence of the family is always felt, even as their scion are jetting between Bangkok, Santa Fe, Alaska, Bucharest and Ho Chi Minh City, acidly rating malls and hotel rooms and honing his collection of foreign-language obscenities (Romanian is the very best source, with “I shit in your mother’s mouth”). His attritional war with his father, Lou, who died at the age of 98 a few months after the final entry, captures all the contradictory emotions of difficult family relationships, with Sedaris variously angered, resigned, relenting and, ultimately, compassionate. We hear not only of Lou’s persistent jibes, but also of his badgering his local paper with anonymous phone calls telling them to interview his son. And with the disinhibition of age – both father and son’s – comes recognition. Meeting a friend of Sedaris’s brother, a woman who has recently lost a huge amount of weight, “Dad said, not ‘Congratulations’ or ‘That must have been tough’, but rather ‘I’ll bet you’re a real sight to see in the shower.’ And people accuse me of having no filter.”
For all that Sedaris has no filter when it comes to his love of conspicuous consumption – houses bought on what seems like a whim, high-end shopping, fossicking around antique shops in search of grotesqueries – he is also impressively civic-minded. His devotion to litter-picking is well documented, and neither does he stint on the gruesome details of what he gathers on his epic hedgerow walks, nor on his run-ins with high-handed neighbours, whom he generally swears at before going home to be gently reprimanded by Hugh, his more diplomatic partner, the curb to his excesses, the reliable provider of delicious dinners and, frequently, the foil of his jokes.
Near the beginning of A Carnival of Snackery, we meet Sedaris applying to be a volunteer for Age Concern. “I said I was available Monday through Friday from now until 13 May, when I leave to go to Australia and then the United States. ‘What you want is something we call “a befriending position”,’ Harry said, ‘but given your availability, I’m afraid it’s impossible. Befriending is something that continues for years and won’t work if you’re leaving the country a month from tomorrow.’ ‘Well, it doesn’t have to be a problem,’ I said. ‘Don’t you have anyone who’s going to die on or about May thirteenth?’” By its conclusion, we are in lockdown, and there are no more tours; instead, Sedaris and Hugh are holed up in their New York apartment, emerging only to join Black Lives Matter protests and to celebrate the ousting of Trump – and for Sedaris to go and clean his sister’s oven, a service he describes as the perfect gift when you can’t think what to get someone. These diaries – grumpy, bitchy, sympathetic, sad and welcoming all at once – might be another.
• A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries 2003-2020 is published by Little Brown (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.