It's hard to describe David Sedaris to those who've never read him. Mixing autobiographical details with sharp sarcasm and social commentary, Sedaris can probably best be described as a '90s version of brilliant humorist Jean Shepherd (who did his own scathing take on the holiday season with the film A Christmas Story). Sedaris' essays and stories are at once hilarious, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking. His new anthology, Holidays on Ice, collects three previously released stories and essays and offers three brand-new ones; all revolve around Christmas.
"SantaLand Diaries," which originally appeared in "Barrel Fever," leads off the collection and may be Sedaris's best-known work. A laugh-out-loud-hysterical look at Sedaris's experiences working as an elf in SantaLand in Macy's, the story is a wickedly funny slicing-and-dicing of the holiday season and the good cheer that supposedly accompanies it. His dark humor is exactly what you need when you're getting sick of all the fuss about Christmas. Look how Sedaris handled this experience with a mother who was tiring of her son's relentless pestering:
The woman grabbed my arm and said, "You there, Elf, tell Riley here that if he doesn't start behaving immediately, then Santa's going to change his mind and bring him coal for Christmas." I said that Santa no longer traffics in coal. Instead, if you're bad he comes to your house and steals things. I told Riley that if he didn't behave himself, Santa was going to take away his TV and all his electrical appliances and leave him in the dark. "All your appliances,including the refrigerator. Your food is going to spoil and smell bad. It's going to be so cold and dark where you are. Man, Riley, are you ever going to suffer. You're going to wish you never heard the name Santa." The woman got a worried look on her face and said, "All right, that's enough." I said, "He's going to take your car and your furniture and all the towels and blankets and leave you with nothing." The mother said, "No, that's enough, really."
"Dinah, the Christmas Whore" is another semiautobiographical essay, reprinted from the author's popular Naked collection. Clearly "Dinah" has a little more social commentary to it than "SantaLand Diaries." With generous doses of sarcasm and hyperbole, Sedaris tells of the Christmas when he and his older sister rescued a prostitute from her abusive boyfriend and took her home to meet their family. Funny and effective.
One of the new pieces is sidesplittingly funny. In "Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol," a theater critic shreds several elementary school productions of those excruciatingly dull Christmas pageants we've all had to sit through at one time or another. In reviewing the Sacred Heart Elementary School's version of "The Story of the First Christmas," the critic notes the children's pathetic acting.
One could hardly blame them for their lack of vitality, as the stingy, uninspired script consists, not of springy dialogue, but rather of a deadening series of pronouncements. Mary to Joseph: "I am tired." Joseph to Mary: "We will rest here for the night." There's no fire, no give and take, and the audience soon grows weary of this passionless relationship.
The remaining three essays also provide good laughs. The essay "Based on a True Story" brilliantly skewers the television industry's eagerness to cash in on tragedy for the sake of high ratings. "Christmas Means Giving" pits two neighboring families against each other in a very public battle to the death for the title of Most Charitable Family. And "Season's Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!" is an amusing, although overlong, look at an exceptionally bad year of a family expressed via a Christmas card.
Holidays on Ice is a small package, clocking in at only 123 pages. But Sedaris makes the most of those pages, and the compact size of the book makes it an ideal choice for a stocking stuffer. If you're tired of "The Night Before Christmas" and prefer something more along the lines of "A Very Manic-Depressive Charlie Brown Christmas," then Holidays on Ice is the best gift you could give yourself this year. Matt Schwartz