I had a soft spot for this short story and essay collection from the get-go, as it was one of those rare instances where I thought to myself, "I tried this!"
When I was a teenager realizing that I wanted to write for a living, I wasn't sure what the hell I was trying to do when I finally sat down to do it. I hadn't written much outside of school, and it certainly wasn't enough to make it obvious that writing was a serious interest to myself. I wrote essays, stories, and poems then, but I didn't have a range of good or bad, proper or improper, sensible or senseless.
So, along the way, I'd write these absurd stories of things going wrong for people, and it made me laugh. They were quirky and random. I think the power of being able to play god over your own characters went to my head almost immediately. I recall one story about a delusional high school girl that was obsessed with the popular jock, and one day she really dolled herself up to catch his attention. When he finally turns around, she thinks it's going to be a confession of love, but all he says is, "Stop kicking my chair, you stupid bitch."
To me, I thought it was hilarious. I really did (and I kind of still do). It wasn't based off of anything or anyone. I just liked that the story had an abrupt twist at the end.
Short stories have that power. With a novel, it's hard to keep up the strangeness and a reader will really feel heavily for a character or a plot, so it's a weird tight rope to walk. But a short story offers a reader just enough information and time to understand (and potentially empathize with) characters, so you can really exploit that. Sure, short stories can be a powerful, moving, extraordinary medium...but they can also be for nonsense.
Most of Barrel Fever is made up of funny and absurd yet cynical and realistic first-person accounts of life as one insane thing after another. They're endearing with ridiculous premises (one actor's several-page-long Oscar speech, a mother/wife falling apart in a holiday newsletter, etc). But they're articulate and well-crafted, so the silliness shines through as a glorious fiction. There were parts where I laughed out loud because he delivered a punchline amidst compassionate and peculiar observation.
I've been familiar with Sedaris's essay work for years. He's superb, and I love his non-fiction, as many of them read like short stories anyway. I'm glad that he didn't stray too far, while still steering away, when it came to his fiction. The essays in this collection were outstanding as well, but I figured that'd be the case. Seeing as how this was his first collection, it's pretty interesting to see how goofy he was at the start of his career while also being just as talented and steady as he is now.
Fuck yeah, David Sedaris.