The Family Man: David Sedaris continues to make his reputation by hurting the ones he loves.
Thursday, June 24, 2004
The Modern American Family can be a pretty absurd phenomenon, as early social documents such as Leave It To Beaver and My Three Sons can attest. Most of us are inured to our loved ones’ nonsense and have learned to ignore or accept their unpredictable behaviors. Or else we go out of our way to hide our family secrets from the world, lest they reveal too much about ourselves.
David Sedaris, conversely, has modeled himself into the funniest and most poignant American satirist since James Thurber by revealing, nay celebrating, the very things we consciously ignore or anxiously bury.
An obsessive-compulsive 47-year-old gay man with a long history of drug abuse and random jobs, Sedaris has grown wealthy and famous by exploiting his family as hilariously twisted, depraved—and quintessentially American.
Now that’s a brutal introduction. But Sedaris deserves it. He’s made his own bed, and though he may not be getting much restful sleep in it, it’s king-size and commands an undoubtedly spectacular view. He may have sold his family out, but he got a regal return on their humiliation.
Sedaris’ astounding success isn’t the result of simply hanging his family out to dry. Otherwise there’d be millions of Americans currently on 32-city book tours kicked off by appearances on CNN and David Letterman.
No, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation why it’s Sedaris reading at Carmel’s Sunset Center this Friday, and not your disaffected little brother. The guy can write like nobody’s business.
Discovered in 1993 by National Public Radio’s Ira Glass (the creator and host of This American Life), Sedaris made his comic debut recounting his strange-but-true experiences of his job as a Macy’s Christmas elf, clad in green tights, reading his now-classic “SantaLand Diaries” on NPR’s Morning Edition. Quickly becoming a fixture on the show, his sardonic and incisive memoirs attracted an ever-growing audience and led to bestselling story collections, a busy magazine career and readings at venues like Carnegie Hall. In 2000, he published Me Talk Pretty One Day, which sold more than a million copies and sealed his literary stardom.
Having achieved his growing popularity in the unforgiving medium of radio, Sedaris’ stories are immensely readable and full of vibrant imagery. When he reads them, his delivery is deadpan, his voice a high-pitched blend of innocence and sarcasm. Like a jaded pixie, he unflinchingly recounts the many poignant cruelties that make up his family’s shared existence.
This weekend, he’s in Carmel to promote and read from his newest book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (Little, Brown, 257 pages, $24.95), a collection that picks up precisely where Me Talk Pretty One Day left off. It’s the continuing story of the Sedaris family’s misadventures and weirdities.
As enjoyable as his previous book, many of the stories in this collection are slightly more sentimental, or perhaps just slightly less caustic and biting.
In “Repeat After Me,” Sedaris subtly compares himself to his sister’s parrot, revealing that when family members now tell him stories, they are generally preceded by the line “You have to swear you’ll never repeat this.”
“I always promise, but it’s generally understood that my word means nothing,” he writes.
In the most poignant piece, the succinct “Hejira,” Sedaris recounts how bong hits and his father’s inability to say the word ‘gay’ cause him to completely miss the fact that he was being thrown out of the house because of his sexuality at the age of 22.
“Our little talk was supposed to be one of those defining moments that shape a person’s adult life, but he’d been so uncomfortable with the most important word that he’d left it out completely, saying only, ‘I think we both know why I’m doing this.’”
It’s in stories such as this, or “Let It Snow,” in which his mother locks all the children out of the house on a snowy winter day because she wants to be alone, that Sedaris seems entirely justified in skewering his family. What crappy parents, the reader thinks. They deserve it.
Then Sedaris will gleefully reveal the sad failures and shortcomings of his oldest sister, Lisa Sedaris, in minute detail, and, although repulsed by his brazen betrayal of confidence, you must eagerly, shamelessly read on.
Granted, Sedaris is not without remorse. He portrays himself as a “small, evil man” who turns to his sobbing sister and callously asks, “What if I use the story but say that it happened to a friend?”
But this is his livelihood now. He can’t mine the foibles of literary super-stardom to the same ends; he needs his family. True, he’s managed to win some outsider status by moving to France and working the culture-clash angle, but his bread and butter will always be his delightfully rich and royally messed-up family. Why? Because he knows they’re a lot like our own.
David Sedaris reads Saturday at the Sunset Center, San Carlos and 9th, Carmel. 624-3996.