Author's sixth sense is humor


Catheters and Anne Tyler, autopsies and Flannery O'Connor, bird-eating bullfrogs from Arizona and hairy-handed doctors from any city, U.S.A. In other words, lunch with David Sedaris.

The former elf in Macy's Santaland who became a best-selling author and National Public Radio essayist was in town this week not promoting his latest collection of promiscuously witty short stories. "Me Talk Pretty One Day" (Little, Brown $22.95) is in bookstores, but Sedaris actually hawks other writers' books at his own signings. He's in a "Francine Prose's 'Blue Angel' " phase and sets up her books next to his.

"So if someone buys her book, I won't feel guilty if they buy one of mine," Sedaris says. "I could never promote myself." Yes, writing fans, David Sedaris (age: 43; beloved/hated hometown: Raleigh, N.C.) is equipped with what Truman Capote called every writer's God-given utensil: a whip. And that whip is used for self-flagellation. And Sedaris beats himself real good. Critics of his work are right, in his book.

"I really don't have anything to say," Sedaris says.

But he says it very well.

In his latest clutch of pieces - sample titles: "Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities," "The Tapeworm Is In" and "I'll Eat What He's Wearing" - Sedaris again offers his laser-surgery take on the state of Life Among Humans. His press clips compare him to James Thurber, Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker. ("Did you see my press kit? It's mortifying!") But he writes more like E.B. White - if White had smoked a warehouse full of dope, been hatched from a sprawling middle-class Greek family from Carolina, suffered through and conquered a lisp (see his "Go Carolina" piece), and had a young rascally brother known to this day as the Rooster.

"It often seems my brother and I were raised in two completely different households," Sedaris writes in "You Can't Kill the Rooster" from his latest book. "When I was young, we weren't allowed to say 'shut up.' " But younger brother Paul could curse with reckless abandon. "The drug laws had changed as well. 'No smoking pot' became 'no smoking pot in the house,' before it finally petered out to 'please don't smoke any more pot in the living room.' "

It was the Rooster, however, who was home to comfort their father when Sedaris' mother, Sharon, died of lung cancer. In "The Youth in Asia," Sedaris writes of his mother's restrained interest in their pets and their speedy replacements. "Our motto being: Another day, another collar." Sedaris also writes:

"When my mother died and was cremated herself, we worried that, acting on instinct, our father might run out and immediately replace her. Returning from the funeral, my brother, sisters and I half expected to find some vaguely familiar Sharon Two standing at the kitchen counter and working the puzzle in TV Guide."

Years later, Sedaris wishes he could bring his mother along on these book tours. Her son, an expatriate living in Paris with his boyfriend of 10 years, tours and lectures and talks and writes and broadcasts on two continents now. When Sedaris is not recording essays for the BBC, he's flying to Chicago to record pieces for Ira Glass' "This American Life" and another NPR staple, "Morning Edition."

"My goal is to make something of my life on paper," he says.

The birth of Sedaris' career can be traced to his first NPR appearance in 1992, when he read from his diary about his work as Crumpet the Elf. When asked by one of Macy's Santas to lead a group of children in a Christmas carol, Sedaris sang "Away in a Manger" in his best Billie Holiday voice. These words don't do the moment justice. His words did.

Sedaris also worked as an apartment cleaner after moving to New York in 1991. Descriptions of cleaning other people's toilets seemed downright poetic when under the witchy spell of Sedaris' brain. Like any good writer, Sedaris was constantly collecting string for stories. His "mindless jobs" and excursions of the imagination (two weeks watching autopsies in a Phoenix morgue) paid off in huge dividends. After vacationing at a nudist colony, Sedaris wrote what would become the title piece of his 1997 best seller, "Naked."

"While I long to see naked people, I'm not so sure I'm ready to be naked myself," he wrote. And, "What is it with these people and volleyball? The two go hand in hand. When I think nudist, I don't think penis - I think net."

His writing-without-a-net now regularly appears in the New Yorker and Esquire, which pay him handsomely to write on subjects of his choice. Since he is willingly and affectionately his own main character (question: "When did you become really, really interested in yourself?" Answer: "From the get-go."), Sedaris need only troll for the right subject. External catheters, for example.

For his book signing Tuesday in his Raleigh, Sedaris wore something called a "Stadium Pal," a 34-ounce collection bag that resembles a "deflated rubber chicken." The catheter is delicately designed for the diehard football fan who drinks lot of beer but is too lazy to rise for the bathroom. As always, Sedaris can relate. Once, during a book signing, he found himself having to excuse himself. But look, mom, no interruptions now!

On the road, Sedaris has learned a few other tricks. He will guess your age and is uncannily accurate. He can also spot the doctors in his audience. Something about their stubbly beards and "they have a lot of hair on their hands, for some reason," he says. He loves signings in bookstores and lectures in packed theaters. He loves the sound of his own voice and writing. "I'm such a ham," he says.

At lunch before an appearance in Washington, Sedaris orders North Carolina catfish if only for the promised hush puppies. Across a restaurant table, he seems like a cross between Kevin Spacey and Woody Allen. But after a while, he seems just like David Sedaris. His life, as expected, is an open essay. He smokes, despite his mother's lung cancer. He finally went to a dentist after 13 years (he has some condition where his teeth actually move during the night). He never exercises. He never learned to drive. And he watches movies daily (just loved "Dinosaur").

His mind is a weird Rolodex, and under B would be Baltimore.

"Do you know Anne Tyler?" (Which is like asking a New Yorker "Do you know Woody Allen?") No, we don't know know her.

Sedaris loves her stuff, especially "Ladder of Years." He also treasures the work of Flannery O'Connor, who can be his own "moral compass." In her flawed characters, he sees his own flawed character and for a while (maybe a week, an hour) he works to check and balance his stuff. And O'Connor's is real writing, he maintains. Not what he writes. Which is why Sedaris officially lists his occupation as "typist."

"I can't call myself a writer," he says.

All right, all right. But David Sedaris sure types real good.

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