The opening piece in David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day offers one of the most endearing indications of a person’s sexual orientation I’ve ever heard. Remembering the time in fifth grade when a speech therapist pulled him out of class, he recalls how she asked him which team he preferred — Carolina State or Carolina University (he doesn’t care at all for sports, but he knows enough to pick one) — then explained she’s there to teach him how to speak correctly. David has a lisp and says his “yes’s” as “yeth” which, no matter how hard he tries, he can’t correct. These facts alone don’t, of course, give away his preferences, but the adolescent awkwardness and taunting over his effeminate speech form a wonderful segue into the lines that do: He imagines his therapist “taking names as our assembled teachers raised their hands, saying, ‘I’ve got one in my homeroom,’ and ‘There are two in my fourth-period math class’: FUTURE HOMOSEXUALS OF AMERICA.”
Sedaris slips his gayness into the reader’s mind subtly, amusingly, without much fanfare and certainly (thankfully) without any politics. Even throughout later pieces, he’ll simply throw out a casual line about his boyfriend; you’d have to look at the name of the author to figure out the orientation. Describing the thrust of his work to an interviewer, Sedaris quoted a reviewer who wrote of him, “Sedaris offers no trenchant social or political commentary. He seems to have little interest outside of himself and his family.” And Sedaris’ response: “And I loved it. That is so true.” But this isn’t to say he has no weight because he doesn’t proclaim his convictions or politics. Rather, it’s this casual observance of a dippy, over-reacting world from a writer who, as a kid, “kept movie star scrap books, made [his] own curtains” and watched Guiding Light with his mother that gives Sedaris his lackadaisical charm.
David Sedaris, and particularly Me Talk Pretty One Day, has gone around on lists of people’s favorite recent works as visibly as Angela’s Ashes, Radiohead or The Magnetic Fields. And for good reason: his warm, witty takes on the everyday ridiculous all around us easily appeal to almost anyone, of any age group or stylistic leaning, without becoming as blanded over as a book of Maya Angelou’s poetry. He has a good-humored manner of laughing at others’ quarks while whole-heartedly lumping in his own idiosyncrasies that seems to appeal to damn near everyone.
In places, he even mocks himself so astutely and so completely that you momentarily forget there’s a discerning author behind the writing. In a very deeply self-deprecating essay, he describes his early college flirtation with conceptual art. Frustrated with his severe lack of talent at drawing still-lifes, yet still wanting the glitz and glam of the art world, he discovers what a great cover conceptual art is, where one can rationalize arbitrary ideas into succinct “visions”. Here, every found object was “art” — “from the stains in my bathtub to the razor blade and short length of drinking straw I used to cut and ingest my speed. “This was the world I’d been dreaming of, where God-given talent was considered an unfair advantage and a cold stare merited more praise than the ability to render human flesh.” It’s hard to recall just how many no-talent art majors I met who openly expressed hostility towards anyone who could realistically draw, as though they were cheating by displaying such skill. But Sedaris is by far is own harshest critic when recalling his abstract attempts at art. The obnoxiousness of his parents punctuates the art phony baloney at an opening of his work:
I looked over at one point and caught [his mother] drunkenly clutching the arm of the curator shouting, “I just passed a lady in the bathroom and told her, “Honey, why flush it? Carry it into the next room and they’ll put it on a goddamn pedestal.”
The lackadaisical wit deflates the pompous and over-blown.
The only real gripe I have about Me Talk Pretty One Day is the lightness of much of the content. While his charm and wit derive from being a sensitive man wryly quipping on a blunt, oblivious world, sometimes the triteness of his scope leaves the writing a bit lacking. In a short work called “Big Boy”, he relates leaving a dinner party to go to the bathroom where “in the toilet, was the absolute biggest turd I have ever seen in my life.” The humor involves trying to flush it so as not to be blamed for being its parent. I mean, alright, yes, it’s funny and I think we can all relate to similar situations “¦ but, Jesus, I could expect this beer-and-farts kind of comedy from any lout.
There were moments when I felt like I was wading through the literary equivalent of small talk, particularly after reading numerous similar lines about the wacky, wacky things people say when they half-speak a language (“See You Again Yesterday”; “I Pledge Allegiance to the Bag”). But then, in the middle of all this clutter, you get a wonderful line about how he’d always ranked Walkmans “in-between boa constrictors and Planet Hollywood T-shirts in terms of vulgarity.”
I also have to differ from some of the lavishly sweeping blurbs he keeps receiving. As the “funniest writer working in America”, he’s received numerous premature comparisons to Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, and Mark Twain. Three separate quotes featured in my copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day refer to his work as “side splitting”. Speaking for myself, I chuckled and smiled and let little patters of laughter out many times reading Me Talk Pretty One Day. But I never once keeled over and grabbed my stomach from the pain of laughing so much ““ not even close, in fact. Still, while I might not agree that he is so hands-down the “funniest writer in America”, as several reviewers have christened him, I would agree, as a USA Today blurb had it, that he’s “arguably one of the funniest writers working today”. Actually, that’s an easy argument to make when you stop short of putting him at the tippy-top most tier.
Perhaps it’s too unfair to criticize an author (or even his status) on the level of reviews he receives (especially on the basis of typically overwhelmed blurbs on his book cover). But in David Sedaris’ case, it’s almost too hard not to. If such remarks reveal more about my own aversion to the ultra-popular than they do about David Sedaris, let me counter that out-of-proportion behavior is just the kind of subject matter that Sedaris mocks in his writing. Me Talk Pretty One Day would be all the more enjoyable if reviewers laid off the excessive praise.
Accordingly, there are several passages in Sedaris’ book that I’ll simply let shine on their own. Here, he relates two different kinds of soft spots we all keep:
The camera glides over the cities of my past, capturing their energetic skylines. [“¦] New York, Chicago, San Francisco: it’s like seeing pictures of people I could still sleep with if I wanted to.
On the subject of our allegedly Victorian/Puritan/repressive sexual mores:
During Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings, my French teacher would often single me out, saying, “You Americans, you’re all such puritans.” … I’d wonder, Are we? I’m sure the reputation isn’t entirely undeserved, but how prudish can we be when almost everyone I know has engaged in a three-way?
So, yes, this guy’s very funny. He’s warm and endearing, a little light in places, but funny and very much worth reading.