In his years of writing wry, personal observational essays for NPR and for bestselling book collections like Me Talk Pretty One Day and When You Are Engulfed In Flames, David Sedaris has often come across as alienated from human society; his polite bafflement over the ways people behave, and his ingratiating desire to understand them, has always been part of his charm. He sometimes seems a bit like an alien visitor, trying to bring himself down to humanity’s messy level. Which is why the sardonic tone of his latest collection, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, seems apropos to his style, while the actual format is downright odd. This short book takes Sedaris away from sympathetic people-watching entirely: It collects a series of animal fables somewhere between Aesop and Bret Easton Ellis. The characters are cats, dogs, mice, and cows, but their shallow self-absorption and graphic grotesquerie belong to a more adult world.
The stories—some of which previously appeared on This American Life—are allegorical criticisms of human foibles, particularly selfishness and shortsightedness, particularly as evidenced in current events. In “The Judicious Brown Chicken,” a hen interprets every death on her farm as evidence of God’s judgments on the unworthy, and takes skewed life lessons from them. The eponymous chipmunk, dating a squirrel, lets prejudice and timidity interfere with their happiness. “The Vigilant Rabbit” features a bunny who stands in for militant amateur border guards everywhere. The manipulative crow in “The Crow And The Lamb” preys on a sheep’s smug vanity, to revolting ends—but understandable ones, for a crow. The stories are never subtle, and rarely kind to their subjects; broad bad behavior is the order of the day, with broad, dreadful comeuppance following close behind.
But while a few of the stories are wryly insightful, the collection largely lacks Sedaris’ usual gentle wit and sophistication. Here, he goes for easy targets, clumsy bluntness, and graphic details, like the cat lecturing her baboon hairdresser on the importance of a well-licked anus, or a hippo musing over her rectal colony of singing leeches. The simplicity curdles much of the humor, leaving behind something slight and one-note that feels like James Finn Garner’s old Politically Correct Bedtime Stories and its impulse-buy followers. It’s a brief, entertaining diversion, but without Sedaris’ usual re-readability, or the sense that there’s more to think about after the final page, apart from how animalistic humans can be.