This American Icon

Humorist David Sedaris Speaks Openly About Being A Big, Loser Idiot. We Should All Be So Lucky.

DAVID SEDARIS IS sitting in his sister Amy's New York apartment, awaiting a lecture he'll perform tonight with fellow "This American Life" contributor Sarah Vowell. The faint sound of his breath, continually inhaling and exhaling the smoke of his mainstay Kool cigarettes, is audible over the telephone. Tonight he'll read excerpts from his soon-to-be-released collection of essays, Me Talk Pretty One Day, as well as some new material from his diaries. He says he's nervous--Ira Glass will be there, and he wants to impress him with some of his newer work. He's also obsessing over what the audience's reaction will be. "If you don't get a response, it's like you bombed," Sedaris says. "So I'm nervous when I try new things out loud."

It was December of 1992 when Sedaris' eloquent yet sardonic voice was first transmitted from the headquarters of National Public Radio in Washington, DC. Through the airwaves, he told a wry and subversive personal account of when he was an out-of-work writer attempting to supplement his paltry income by taking a job as one of Santa's elves at Macy's Department store in New York City. The program was NPR's "Morning Edition," and Sedaris' series, called The Santaland Diaries, garnered the highest number of requests for tapes and transcripts of any piece in the program's history.

After biding his time working a series of odd jobs while writing throughout his 30s, Sedaris caught the attention of "This American Life" host (then an NPR producer) Ira Glass, who first heard him reading his essays at a small, basement coffee house in Chicago. Since his premier on "Morning Edition," Sedaris has become one of the most recognizable and beloved voices on the radio.

"I didn't think anyone would pay it any mind," Sedaris, now 41, says of The Santaland Diaries. "You know, there was a lot of stuff on the radio that day and it didn't occur to me that people would pick up on it anyway."

They did. Before long, Sedaris became a regular "Morning Edition" contributor. Soon his stories--enchanting, often acerbic essays about his family, his love life and his childhood desire to lick and touch everything in sight--were winning the hearts of public radio listeners across the country. In 1994 he published a series of short, fictional vignettes titled Barrel Fever. Refusing to let success go to his head, Sedaris continued working as an apartment cleaner in New York while more essays appeared in the pages of eminent magazines such as Esquire, Harper's and The New Yorker. In 1995, he came on board as a regular contributor to Public Radio International's "This American Life."

But it was not until the 1997 publication of Naked, which remained on the New York Times best-seller list for nine weeks, that Sedaris became the comedic icon that so many of today's contemporary writers and humorists now strive to emulate.

As Sedaris' star continues to rise, critics struggle to pin down his elusive style of bittersweet sentimentality and humor. Lately comparisons have been drawn between Sedaris and, among others, J.D. Salinger and Mark Twain. And although he's flattered by such analogies, Sedaris is hesitant to take them too seriously. "You know, it helps in the reviews when they say he's a mix between this person and that personäthat's just the way people write," Sedaris says. "But a lot of people get compared to J.D. Salinger. I mean, if you look at book blurbs, if you're a guy, then you're going to get that comparisonäyou know, I mean I love his stuff, and Mark Twain's stuff, that's really...nice, but I can't take it seriously."

Since last September, Sedaris has been living in Paris with his boyfriend, painter Hugh Hamrick. Being an expatriate writer (a term Sedaris says he abhors) may sound splendidly romantic. One would imagine Sedaris spending his days immersed in enlightening conversation with fellow writers at the city's idyllic sidewalk cafés. Yet he doesn't see himself engaging in the same types of intellectual circles enjoyed by his expat predecessors such as Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Instead Sedaris, who is literally terrified whenever required to speak French, seems to live out his Parisian life in relative anonymity. "You're just invisible when you're a foreigner." Sedaris says. "You know, if you go to a party or something, and you open your mouth and say you have to go to the bathroom, you see them laughing and having a good time with their fellow countrymen, you know you're just sort of invisible. You're just a foreigner."

Sedaris' acquaintances in Paris, however, were recently shocked when the French translation of Naked became available for the first time. "I think it surprised people," Sedaris says. "Their attitude was like, 'Oh, I didn't know you had a life.' It's not anything specific to France, but as a foreigner, if you don't speak the language perfectly, it's just sort of assumed that you're stupid. And so I've come to think of myself as stupidäI've just come to think of myself as a loser and an idiot."

Sedaris has a knack for pinpointing the most absurd nuances of the human condition, often using his own family as a microcosm of American peculiarity and dysfunction. He is particularly fond of writing about his late mother, who makes several unforgettable appearances in the new book. As a writer, Sedaris seems to be either blessed or cursed by his tendency for encountering some of the world's most unbelievably obtuse characters. Me Talk Pretty One Day's title story, which concerns Sedaris' ill-fated attempt to complete a French class in Paris, is a perfect example. The teacher, whom Sedaris describes as a "wild animal, something completely unpredictable," is a woman so vehemently evil that she goes so far as to accuse a Yugoslavian student of "masterminding a program of genocide."

Soon Sedaris and his fellow students become justifiably terrified of their teacher's apparent sadism, learning to "dodge chalk and protect our heads and stomachs whenever she approached us with a question." Sedaris' fear of this Parisian fascist was profound. "My only comfort was the knowledge that I was not alone," Sedaris writes. "Huddled in the hallways and making the most of our pathetic French, my fellow students and I engaged in the sort of conversation commonly overheard in refugee camps. 'Sometime me cry alone at night.' 'That be common for I, also, but be more strong, you. Much work and someday you talk pretty. People start love you soon. Maybe tomorrow, okay.' "

The story, which was originally published in Esquire, earned Sedaris an expulsion from the school, not to mention the threat of a lawsuit. "They couldn't sue me because it was true," Sedaris says. Many of Sedaris' other stories are equally as biting. Therefore, it is hard to imagine how his family must feel given his affinity for airing their dirty laundry on radio or in print. "Oh, they're fine," Sedaris says. "If it's a story about someone in my family, I'll give it to them first to read. You know, I'll give the stories to my dad and he'll say they're fantastic, but he never reads them."

While introducing Sedaris and Sarah Vowell at a lecture at Town Hall in New York City last April, Ira Glass summed up Sedaris' contribution to the literary world with his usual grace and eloquence. "I think that because David's writing is so funny, people overlook everything else that's going on in his storiesähow clearly he describes the world, the very non-comedic, melancholic mood that runs through so many of the stories, how complicated the characters are. The way he writes about his mother just breaks your heart; he's made her into one of the great characters of modern non-fiction writing. She's simultaneously so funny and smart and contrary and difficult. Whenever I read anything he's written about her, I just think, he loves her so much." Glass went on to say that, without Sedaris, "I'm not sure that either Sarah or I would be here tonight."

Many feel that Sedaris' unique radio essays have reawakened the art of American storytelling and good old-fashioned biting satire. Still, he refuses to take any of the credit. "I wouldn't include myself," Sedaris says. "Ira has really done that. I mean, he's really got definite ideas about how radio stories should be and he's taught me an awful lot in terms of when things go on his show. He's taught me a lot about how something needs to move alongäHe's probably the best editor I've ever worked withäHe can look at something and say, 'Oh, you need to put this here, get rid of this right here and lay on this word in this line right here and you're ready to go; whereas, I would never figure that out."

Since Sedaris has performed some of the essays in Me Talk Pretty One Day in front of live audiences, he's had to make some minor changes to ensure that the written versions have an equal impact on readers. "Sometimes something can work out loud and on the page you think, OK, well, I was making a face, that's why I got that laugh or I paused, or I took a sip of water. There are just little tricks you can do to get a laugh out of doing nothing. And, boy, I rely on those."

And it seems almost preposterous that this revolutionary hero of letters would have anything to worry about regarding the release of his new book. Yet despite his good fortune, Sedaris, the consummate artist, can be just a little paranoid when it comes to how people respond to his work. "I never feel good about a book, never ever," Sedaris says. "When Naked came out I called my editor and tried to get them to recall it. I thought that it was just awful; that it was going to get trashed. So I have the same feeling about this book, but I don't know if it's because I always feel that way or that this time I really mean it."

If Me Talk Pretty One Day receives even a quarter of the positive response his previous efforts have earned, he has nothing to worry about.

David Sedaris reads from Me Talk Pretty One Day at 7 p.m. Monday, June 19, at Borders Books and Music, 4235 N. Oracle Road. For information, call 292-1331. Mr. Pandolfi's article originally appeared in the Dayton, Ohio, Impact Weekly.