David Sedaris' Comically Accurate Hatred For The Common Man.
By James DiGiovanna
Naked, David Sedaris (Little, Brown). Hardcover, $21.95.
DAVID SEDARIS' FIRST book, Barrel Fever, was almost unbearably funny. His description of working as an elf at Macy's during Christmas shopping season had more laugh-out-loud lines than any five years' worth of Saturday Night Live. Especially memorable was his desire to tell the little girl waiting to see Santa, "I have friends who would kill for your tiny waist!"
His new book, Naked, is equally witty but much sadder. Essentially an autobiography in short stories, Naked is full of well-earned and comically accurate hatred for the common person. The common person, it seems, spent most of his or her time torturing the nerdy, obsessive-compulsive, young David Sedaris, whose pronounced homosexual manner made him a target for redneck grade-school students and redneck grade-school teachers. Writing about the desegregation of his Raleigh junior-high school, Sedaris remembers how the white science teacher who mocked homosexuals was replaced by a black teacher equally adept at using his intolerance for gays as a source of humor.
Of course, using intolerance as the basis for comedy is Sedaris' greatest skill, and he's quick to make fun of the nudists, illiterate farm workers, sincere Christians and other marks he meets along the way to becoming a best-selling author.
Sedaris is not hypocritical about this because, as he says, "If I was going to make fun of people I had to expect a little something in return." Still, this level of self-consciousness makes the book a much less straightforward comic vehicle than his first volume.
The longest story is so full of pathos that the joke lines elicit only sympathy, not laughter. It tells the story of Sedaris' misguided journey to the Northwest to work in the orchards. The trip is motivated out of spite for a friend of the author who had the audacity to get involved in a romantic relationship that took her time away from the intense amount of attention Sedaris desired. Alone in the small town of Hood Valley, he finds, to his surprise, that his acid wit and utter disdain for the locals leave him somewhat alienated.
With no one to talk to, he begins writing long letters to everyone in his address book... "Dear Miss Chestnut, You're probably wondering what I've been up to since third grade...." When no one responds and his only local friend, whom he looks down upon with grateful condescension, tries to rape him, he escapes into the night, where he encounters an obnoxious and slightly deranged man who offers him a job cutting jade. The man introduces himself as Jonathan Combs, C.O.G. The letters stand for Child Of God, and Combs shows that Jesus came from an extremely dysfunctional family. His cursing, stupidity and general obnoxiousness provide ample material for Sedaris' wit. In the end, Combs, like the friend who dumped Sedaris for a romantic interest, and the man whose friendship was merely a cover for his sexual interest, betrays the author and leaves him utterly alone. Not exactly the stuff of light-hearted comedy.
There are, however, extremely funny sections. Sedaris' best source of material is his mother, who, unlike the uneducated people who don't know the joke is on them, is genuinely funny, cutting and witty. If, as he claims, these stories are true, it's clear that all of his wit is inherited along the maternal line.
When young David expresses his hope that his real, extremely white and wealthy parents will come and take him away from his perceived squalor, his mother shoots back, "Believe me, if I was going to steal a baby, I would have taken one that didn't bust my ass every time I left my coat lying on the sofa. I don't know how it happened, but you're mine. If that's a big disappointment for you, just imagine what I must feel."
When the suburban neighbors, whom Sedaris' mother holds in the same regard that her viciously elitist son does, show Mrs. Sedaris pictures of their new-born grandchildren, she comes back with "Now that's different. A living baby. All my grandchildren have been ground up for fertilizer or whatever it is they do with aborted fetuses." When told about the marriage of the neighbor's daughter, she remarks on her good fortune in never marrying off one of her own: "I've taken the money we saved on the weddings and am using it to build my daughters a whorehouse."
Her extremely nasty humor gets its best play when she's diagnosed with lung cancer, a result of her intense dedication to smoking. "This cancer," she says, "is my own fault. I'm just sorry your father's still around to remind me of that fact every fifteen goddamned seconds."
In a recent interview, when he was asked about exploiting his family's pain over his mother's illness, Sedaris said, "You know, anybody who has a typewriter basically jumps for joy when his mother announces she has a tumor. 'Ching! Ching! I can get something out of that.' " Here, his wit is well placed and the sad elements of the story do not interfere with the humor, largely because it's clear that this is how his family, and especially his mother, would want to be represented.
The cancer story probably should have ended the book, because the final tale, "Naked," about a trip to a nudist colony, returns to the making-fun-of-the-clueless mode, although in this story Sedaris is able to make tremendous sport of his own neuroses. This is the only story that occurs after Sedaris had become a successful author, and it seems clear he was merely searching for material. Nonetheless, in spite of its artificial premise, the story manages to evoke a few good laughs.
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