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|David Sedaris delivers more than laughs with ‘Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk’|
|by Robin Kemp|
|October 12, 2012 00:00|
If you haven’t read “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” yet, you are cheating yourself of an important moral guide for these troublesome times. Also, you’ll miss the opportunity to laugh so hard that you snort. How often can you get a two-for-one deal like this?
“Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” is the most recent book by gay humorist David Sedaris, who brings his sardonic wit and intellectual humor to Atlanta Symphony Hall on Oct. 27.
“Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” is a collection of 17 fables, little stories featuring animal characters illustrating some moral lesson, set in contemporary urban America. You’re free to interpret them as taking place in New York City, but Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, or Miami would work just as well.
However, these are not the Aesop’s tales of your childhood. They are bent, warped, campy object lessons about how we treat each other, which usually is not very nice.
Take the fable of “The Cat and the Baboon,” which could have been set in any number of metro Atlanta establishments, inside the perimeter or out. The cat hits the beauty salon in preparation for a party, where the overly solicitous baboon tries to bait her into bashing other species. The cat either refuses to play or plays dumb, but the baboon keeps trying.
This little tug-of-war escalates, but the baboon keeps after the cat, ever mindful that pushing too far could cost her tip. The baboon finally scores by engaging the cat in their mutual disgust towards dogs. You know, that species. No spoilers, but Sedaris dispatches the comedy and the anti-moral in his typically hilarious manner.
“The Migrating Warblers” skewers a similar contemporary prejudice: a pair of garrulous yellow warblers, just back from Guatemala by way of Brownsville, Texas, inflict their gringo-mangled Spanglish on their friends as they describe the shocking things they saw south of the border.
Sedaris’ satirical snowbird describes a mass murder scene, leading up to her next Spanglish misstep, and it’s the mildly obscene punch line, delivered by her obnoxious husband. The effect is rather like Flannery O’Connor writing flash fiction about the Real Housewives of Atlanta.
Players in Sedaris’ morality circus include a mouse smother-mother and her “rescue snake,” a bear whose obsession with her stepmother’s death drags her into a living hell, a homeschooling crow who pulls a nasty con on a sheep-mother, a Lord-of-the-Flies-Lite group of prepper critters, a parrot-journalist and a Vietnamese potbellied pig with body-image issues, an owl whose family catches her in a compromising position with a gerbil and a hippo, and some name-dropping foodie flies.
“The Toad, The Turtle, and the Duck” exemplifies Sedaris’ technique: He presents a mundane situation (waiting in line), looks for the mildly unpleasant part of that experience (shared carping about customer service), then throws the whole experience off the nearest ledge (one-upsmanship in counting the ways in which they would wreak revenge on the offending party, usually while displaying prejudice, churlishness, or complete cluelessness.)
What makes these tales laugh-out-loud funny is not the mere replication of uncomfortable moments like these, but the narrator’s commentary on them as they unfold. Yes, it is social commentary, and yes, the form is prone to preachiness.
Yet Sedaris serves up each salty fable as a neatly knotted pretzel. You’ll recognize that horrid bouffanted woman from the diner or the race-baiting redneck from the parking deck.
But just when you feel superior enough to point your finger, Sedaris’ catches you off guard: the moral of these stories about human nature is that the thumb always points back.
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