Reed Books: Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

Jess Reed, Editor

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris was my introduction to Sedaris as an author; actually, my introduction to comic writing in general. Last week I reviewed Sedaris’s most recent book, Calypso (2018). Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, published in 2004, is just as strongly written as Calypso, but there are still a few telltale signs of younger, less experienced writing.

In Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Sedaris has something to prove. He had already published a handful of books at this point, but is still making a name for himself in the comic landscape. This gives ambition to the writing that is somewhat lacking in Calypso, in which he can and does coast on his skills. By the time he wrote Calypso, he had branded himself as bittersweet; readers could expect a healthy amount of sadness at the end of every story. He included this depth mostly to play into this brand. In Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, however, his brand is still being formed; he doesn’t include this sadness to play into an existing trope, but to create the trope in the first place. It’s not an afterthought, but actually the entire point.

Still, there’s an overwhelming amount of nostalgia in the book that makes it almost exclusive to himself at times, like the reader is peering in at an inside joke and not really getting it. While he does occasionally reference his current life, mostly through references to his partner, most of these stories are tales from his childhood. This isn’t inherently bad, but it distances the readers from Sedaris. Ironically, his stories are so intimate that they become impersonal. We never get the chance to meet current David Sedaris, so how should we connect to a teenage version of him? How do we see these stories fit into his current self? 

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is also a less experimental book than Calypso, both for better and worse. He only writes in the first person, and from his own perspective (as opposed to some of his other books, where he may take on the persona of a movie critic or animal), and he balances fewer subplots per story than in Calypso. However, there’s something to be said for that type of certainty – the “this will be a funny childhood memory that has a deeper, sadder meaning, but will still make me crack up” always holds up.

Overall, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is funny, of course, but also an interesting way to study the progression of writing over time, especially in the context of Sedaris’s other books.