And now for something completely different: David Sedaris, humorist and personal essayist extraordinaire, takes on selfishness, bigotry, righteousness, loneliness and other all-too-human foibles in 16 animal fables, a La Fontaine and Aesop. They are as hilarious and slyly trenchant as his beloved stories about his sisters, Santaland and smoking.
Despite chatty barnyard animals and charming illustrations by Ian Falconer, creator of the Olivia children's book series, don't be fooled into thinking this is a children's book. Remember the puritanical brouhaha over Maurice Sendak's naked urchin in In the Night Kitchen and the hen's egg-shaped bulges in Ron Barrett's drawings for Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing? Well, we've come a long way, baby: "The Grieving Owl" features a puckered pink hippopotamus rectum.
This happens to be not just the most outrageous, but also the most wonderful story in Sedaris' book. A great horned owl who has lost his life mate finds comfort in filling the hole she has left by gathering information, some of which he gleans from would-be prey in exchange for clemency. When a rat tells him about a leech that "can only live in the anus of a hippopotamus," the owl marvels, "Talk about a closed society!" He investigates, befriending a hippo at the local zoo, and what he learns about these happy parasites positively thrills him: "To live in a damp crowded asshole and sing — if these guys don't know the secret to living, I don't know who does."
Sedaris doesn't spell out explicit morals to his stories, but he doesn't need to. A selfish cow who insists on being partnered with the turkey for Secret Santa because she knows he'll be gone by Thanksgiving gets her comeuppance. So does a self-pitying, motherless bear. A smugly healthy, unsympathetic lab rat sings a different tune after being injected with the virus that causes AIDS.
Most of Sedaris' critters are struggling to make sense of a tough, unfair world. You've got to love a writer whose empathy extends even to a sensitive potbellied pig, causing him to wonder who came up with names like "largemouth bass, humpback whale, lesser wart-nosed horseshoe bat — not caring whose life was ruined."
What drives these stories, of course, is Sedaris' quirky sense of detail and inimitable voice. A mouse reacts to her pet snake eating a young mole whole: "My goodness ... Slow down. Taste!" An Irish setter and the bitch he has been sent to service connect over their agreement that coconut and wild cherry air fresheners are the worst, while the squirrel and chipmunk of the title — sadly separated by family prejudices — talk excitedly about acorns, parasites and "spoiled rotten" dogs on their first date: "That's it exactly. Finally, someone who really gets it." The inflection on "gets" is classic Sedaris.
In "The Mouse and the Snake," Sedaris makes a distinction between exoticism and eccentricity: "To qualify for the latter, all you needed was a turban and an affinity for ridiculously large beads or the color purple," his mouse thinks. "To be exotic, on the other hand, one had to think not just outside the box but outside the world of boxes." Sedaris' anthropomorphized creatures may seem domesticated, but this book, like his more familiar essays, is way outside the world of boxes, wildly inspired — and a rip-roaring hoot.