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In 'Happy-Go-Lucky,' David Sedaris reflects on his fraught relationship with his dad

Little, Brown and Company

It's always interesting to see how a writer's work changes after their parents are gone. Some loosen up dramatically. For many, the gloves come off, relieved to finally have the last word.

David Sedaris' situation is different, because he's been writing about his father for years. "As long as my father had power, he used it to hurt me," he writes in in his latest collection, Happy-Go-Lucky. "In my youth I just took it. Then I started to write about it, to actually profit from it. The money was a comfort, but better yet was the roar of live audiences as they laughed at how petty and arrogant he was."

Unlike his tender essays about his mother, who died in 1991, Sedaris' bitter-edged portraits of Lou Sedaris, an ultra-conservative crank who undercut him at every turn, are not flattering. He may have milked the material for laughs, but these stories were not like the inherently playful, fond ribbing he has given his sisters Amy, Lisa, and Gretchen, or his longtime partner, Hugh.

Sedaris has long been frank about his lifelong disconnect with his father, but he has reflected more openly — and movingly — about it since his father reached his nineties. In Calypso (2018), he memorably likened the two of them to "a pair of bad trapeze artists, reaching for each other's hands and missing every time."

Now, in the wake of his father's death in May 2021 at the age of 98, Sedaris is less intent on garnering laughs than in gauging his feelings. Five of the 18 essays in Happy-Go-Lucky concern his father's last months — and how they affected Sedaris. In the aptly titled "Unbuttoned," he and Hugh rush from England to Lou's bedside in Raleigh, N.C., after getting a call that Sedaris' father, then 96, had taken a turn for the worse. Sedaris arrives burdened with resentments, including the fact that his father had cut him out of his will a few years earlier without telling him. So he's disarmed when this much-diminished man turns to him and says, 'David...You've accomplished so many fantastic things in your life. You're, well...I want to tell you...you...you won.'"

It's a stunning turnaround. But did his father mean, "You won in the game of life," or "You won over me, your father, who told you — assured you when you were small and kept reassuring you — that you were worthless"? Sedaris concludes, "Whichever way he intended those two faint words, I will take them, and in doing so, throw down this lance I've been hoisting for the past 60 years."

Well, not entirely. Although it's perhaps unseemly to dine out on his father's awfulness once he's gone, Sedaris has a new puzzle to untangle: How to reconcile "the dear, cheerful man" who replaced "that perpetual storm cloud" he grew up with? In the title essay, Sedaris wonders, after seeing his father alive for the last time, whether this happy-go-lucky man was there all along, "smothered in layers of rage and impatience that burned away as he blazed into the homestretch?"

But Sedaris isn't one to succumb to mawkishness. "Unfortunately there were all those years that preceded it," he writes, recalling a particularly painful memory of what should have been a shining moment, ruined by a paternal putdown.

Happy-Go-Lucky is more somber than Sedaris' usual fare, but there are some fresh, funny bits wedged between the weighty boulders. In "Pearls," on the occasion of his 30th anniversary with Hugh, he shares some waggish thoughts about long-term relationships. Instead of the traditional gift of gems, he buys Hugh expensive sheets which come with the instructions, "Do not overload the dryer, as your linens need room to dance." Sedaris' reaction: "How did we become these people?" Even funnier: "After 30 years together, sleeping is the new having sex. 'That was amazing, wasn't it!' one or the other of us will say upon waking in the morning."

He writes about lockdown, about which he complains outrageously that it "robbed me of my livelihood." Well, not quite. But it was "brutal" on his Fitbit step targets, and the self-confessed shopaholic missed going to stores. Grounded from his lucrative reading and book-signing tours, he and Hugh spent much more time together than he found healthy, mainly in Manhattan. He marvels at the "snacktivists" providing refreshments on the sidelines of the Black Lives Matter Protests he runs across during his long walks through the city in his gingham mask, with his ears sticking out like "Pringles on hinges."

When he finally gets back to his "live audience — that unwitting congregation of fail-safe editors" with a 72-city tour in the fall of 2021, he describes a world that is no less unscathed by COVID than he is by his father's life and death. It's a world that has gone as topsy-turvy as the title of the book's final essay, "Lucky-Go-Happy": a "divided, beat-up country...weary and battle-scarred. Its sidewalks were cracked, its mailboxes bashed in. All along the West Coast I saw tent cities." Also, Help Wanted signs, belligerent passengers harassing flight attendants about mask mandates, and angry graffiti ("Eat the Rich") on boarded up storefronts. Coming from a writer who can find twisted humor even in a "massively difficult" father, this dark view is sobering.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.