Visitors would wade through steaming pools of human blood

holidays on iceHolidays on Ice
by David Sedaris

I thought I would get in the holiday spirit by reading this small volume of essays and short stories about Christmas. I’ve really enjoyed Sedaris in the past and I love Christmas, so I didn’t see how this could go wrong.

Well…I wouldn’t say I disliked it, but I was a little disappointed. I actually really liked the two essays about Sedaris’s own life, which were funny and insightful in just the way I had come to expect.

“SantaLand diaries” describes his time working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s department store in New York. It gives him a perfect opportunity to bring a critical eye to the various people who work as santas or elves, and the people who pay to visit them. Sedaris can be a little cruel in his observations, but he is so honest about his own failings that it all evens out.

“I spent a few hours in the maze with Puff, a young elf from Brooklyn. We were standing near the lollipop forest when we realized that Santa is an anagram of Satan…We imagined a SatanLand where visitors would wade through steaming pools of human blood and faeces before arriving at the Gates of Hell, where a hideous imp in a singed velvet costume would take them by the hand and lead them toward Satan. Once we thought of it we couldn’t get it out of our minds.”

“Dinah, the Christmas whore” is such an unlikely tale that I wasn’t sure whether it was essay or fiction until he brought himself into the story. It’s about the time during his teens when his older sister Lisa brought a prostitute to Christmas dinner. Sedaris beautifully recaptures his na├»ve misunderstanding of the situation and the terribly middle class way that his family dealt with it.

The other four entries are a bit different. They are satirical short fiction, following a similar format of featuring an unpleasant character and taking their narration to an extreme degree. Three of them were fine, though they didn’t sell me on Sedaris as a short story writer. But the one that made me have real misgivings about the collection is “Front row center with Thaddeus Bristol”, which appears to be a review of various schools’ Christmas plays. The joke is that the reviewer is taking it all completely seriously, giving pretty savage views of the amateurs and their audiences. In theory, that sounds like it could be a funny idea, but it just didn’t tickle my funny bone. Just too harsh.

“To those of you who enjoy the comfort of a nice set of thumbscrews, allow me to recommend any of the crucifying holiday plays and pageants currently eliciting screams of mercy from within the confines of our local elementary and middle schools. I will, no doubt, be taken to task for criticizing the work of children but, as any pathologist will agree, if there’s a cancer it’s best to treat it as early as possible.”

It’s a shame because Sedaris is a truly great essayist. I’d love to read him tackling something less personal to see whether he brings equal greatness to any non-fiction, or if he really is best at that particular milieu he has forged for himself. Which is fine too. Other than Me Talk Pretty One Day (which I loved), which of his books should I read?

Published 1997 by Little, Brown and Company.

Source: The Strand Bookstore in New York.

Challenges: This counts towards the Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge.