In Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, David Sedaris continues the comic chronicles of his family, his childhood, and his adult adventures with the French. That history got its start on National Public Radio (NPR) in 1992, when Sedaris offered a comic exposé of the daily trials involved in his job as a department store elf assigned to corralling children as they lined up to tell the store Santa their Christmas wishes. Sedaris's characteristic cynicism blended with his sense of the outrageous accounts for the popularity of the four collections of essays that precede this one. Because all draw on some version of Sedaris's own life, the persons and life events of this volume will be familiar ground for the author's fans.
The first seven essays of this collection (there are twenty-two in all) are set during Sedaris's childhood, mostly in North Carolina. They introduce the members of his family, a family in which eccentricity and a sort of pugnacious spirit join with cynicism to explain why the family always seems out of step with others in the neighborhood, even when the others are as singular as the Sedarises. “Us and Them,” the first essay in the collection, contrasts the Sedaris clan with their neighbors the Tomkeys, a family on whom the young David spies in an effort to understand their odd behaviors. The Tomkeys have no television, and how they spend their time has become a subject for conversation among the television-addicted Sedaris family.
Spying reveals that the Tomkeys eat dinner as late at eight o’clock, and often sit long over the finished meals, gesturing in a way that suggests that the lack of television has driven them to hold conversations. It all leads the young David to pity people so unaware of “how puny their lives were,” a fact that television could have taught them in a moment.
“The Ship Shape” relates the time the family almost buys a house at the beach. Indeed, the parents go as far as spending a day with a real estate agent and showing the children the likeliest prospect—a house that seems so perfect that the children spend the next few days thinking of suitably punning names for their vacation home. Inevitably the dream fades away as their father talks himself out of the purchase; he finds fault with the local golf course, he considers whether it would not be smarter to buy land and build, and eventually he gives up the idea altogether, leaving the children to report to each other on the various paint jobs and remodelings the house undergoes over the years. In retaliation, their mother gradually retreats to a separate bedroom, one decorated with seascapes and shells. At the end of the essay, Sedaris addresses the reader, saying that if the family had purchased the place, “you wouldn’t have been happy for us. We’re not that kind of people.”
The tone of that pronouncement establishes a new element in these essays—a sort of melancholy awareness that, funny as they all are, as life is, the family and their world has strains of darker colors as well. Those colors make a subtext in “Full House,” in which the young David is pressured by his father to attend a slumber party held by Walt, one of David's classmates. Sedaris's anxious awareness of his sexual identity makes him reluctant to spend a night at a boys’ sleep-over, but his father's belief that Walt and his friends will transform Sedaris into a junior football player and regular guy make him force his son to go. In the course of an uncomfortable night, the boys wind up playing strip poker and, by quick talking and manipulation of the rules, Sedaris maneuvers one of the now-naked guests onto his lap. Looking forward, Sedaris predicts the sorry effects of the evening at school the next week, “but all that would come later, in a different life. For now I would savor this small imitation of tenderness.”
Most of the essays that deal with the author's adolescence and adult life have some thread of this wistfulness. In “The Change in Me,” Sedaris describes his teenage experience of finagling a way to buy clothes that will establish his credentials as cool (hip-hugger trousers and a suede vest) only to realize that the vest is imitation suede and the outfit is altogether so far from cool that even irony cannot give it credibility. His dawning awareness of his error is made worse by the fact that he panhandled the money to finance it. Everyone who has survived adolescence will...
(The entire section is 1808 words.)