Elements of a Story: Examining Barrel Fever
David Sedaris’s Barrel Fever is a collection of short stories and personal essays. We see stories as diverse as a suicidal teenager’s personally written eulogy, a student trying to meet her favorite writer at his hotel, a celebrity telling his story at the Oscars, a gay man’s personally printed newsletter, and Sedaris’s own story of when he worked as an elf at Macy’s. He shows the reader individuals that, in their attempts to make themselves look good, come off as unlikable. Throughout all of these tales, he uses the elements of point of view, conflict and tension in both his fiction and nonfiction to bring his stories to life.
All of the stories, whether fiction or personal essays, are written from the first person point of view. Sometimes this is so the protagonist can show themselves in better light. In “Barrel Fever,” Dolph Heck is an unemployed alcoholic that is more like his brash mother than he’s willing to admit. After being confronted by a co-worker who he had made an unflattering comment about to others, he states, “she began to sob and I might have felt sorry for her had she not reported me twice for smoking dope during the three o’clock break” (133). This is very common for Heck, as this a pattern he follows through the story; everyone else is at fault when they call out his shortcomings and bad behavior. He does admit at one point, “like my mother, I may be mean but I’m not stupid” (137), but revelations like this are rare. In others, such as in “SantaLand Diaries,” it is to show us the narrator’s take on a situation. By taking a job he feels is “one of the most frightening career opportunities I have ever come across” (170), he shows us the good and bad of the holidays, his co-workers and ourselves.
Conflict is at the heart of all of Sedaris’s stories. In “We Get Along,” the protagonist is dealing with the aftermath of his father’s death. Dale and his mother find this more complicated by the fact that “My father hadn’t planned on dying and left behind everything, including a small notebook …stupidly recorded all the women he had screwed” (46). “In Season’s Greeting to Our Friends and Family,” the mother, Jocelyn Dunbar is trying to project the image of a perfect family. This is not so, as her husband impregnated a woman in Vietnam (78), her youngest son is “the artistic loner of the family” (82), and their daughter is in rehab after given birth to a crack baby named Satan Speaks (84). Yet throughout the “annual holiday newsletter” (77), she keeps a cheerful tone the whole time in an attempt to keep up the illusion. With “Glen’s Homophobia Newsletter Vol. 3, No. 2,” he sees “the overwhelming homophobia that is our cross to bear” (60), whether the people he encounters are homophobic or not.
The tensions in the stories of Barrel Fever are at the forefront of all of Sedaris’s tales. In “Glen’s Homophobia Newsletter Vol. 3, No. 2,” the tension is caused by Glen himself. He sees his ex as being homophobic because he left him for a seventeen year old (59). He feels Drew Pierson is homophobic due to calling him a “fag” on the phone (60), but this was due to the fact that he was lying to Drew about his dreams and had him put the telephone receiver in his underwear and “Jump up and down” (64). He claims his boss is homophobic because he reprimanded him “for accidentally shredding some sort of disputed contract” (65). Then he gets angry with a staff of the grocer because he doesn’t get his way (65). Worst of all, he views a man “in a wheelchair, relentlessly bashing my car again and again with the foot pedals” (66), after telling us that he had “to park in one of the so-called ‘handicapped’ spaces” (65). He doesn’t stop for a minute to see that the man is just trying, with difficulty, to get out of his own car, and that this could have been avoided if he had parked where he was suppose to. Instead, Glen decides to take “brute physical force” (66) with the man. Glen sees everything that negatively happens to him as a slight against him due to his sexual orientation.
David Sedaris takes us through the lives of a varied number of people in the twelve fictions and four personal essays that make up Barrel Fever. He shows the reader by his biting wit and satire the good and bad of life within a family, as well as the lies we sometimes tell ourselves to make us feel superior. The protagonists of his wicked tales, through point of view, conflict and tension, come off unflattering in their effort to show us that there are the good people they think they are.
Sedaris, David. Barrel Fever. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994. Print.
© 2017 Kristen Willms