Saturday, April 4, 2009

David Sedaris

I just started reading my first book by David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and it's just plain brilliant.

I had heard so many good things about Sedaris, but he didn’t really catch my interest until I read a piece he wrote for The New Yorker.

The way he sums up the undecided voter is exceptional:
Then you’ll see this man or woman— someone, I always think, who looks very happy to be on TV. “Well, Charlie,” they say, “I’ve gone back and forth on the issues and whatnot, but I just can’t seem to make up my mind!” Some insist that there’s very little difference between candidate A and candidate B. Others claim that they’re with A on defense and health care but are leaning toward B when it comes to the economy.

I look at these people and can’t quite believe that they exist. Are they professional actors? I wonder. Or are they simply laymen who want a lot of attention?

To put them in perspective, I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”

To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked.

I mean, really, what’s to be confused about?


I wonder if, in the end, the undecideds aren’t the biggest pessimists of all. Here they could order the airline chicken, but, then again, hmm. “Isn’t that adding an extra step?” they ask themselves. “If it’s all going to be chewed up and swallowed, why not cut to the chase, and go with the platter of shit?”

Ah, though, that’s where the broken glass comes in.

He also says that the first time he voted he didn't want to go with Carter because, as an art major, he considered himself a maverick. So he decided to write in the name of Jerry Brown because he was rumored to smoke pot.

He says it taught him a valuable lesson: calling yourself a maverick is a sure sign that you’re not one.

Love it.

Sedaris has this way of being funny without really trying (or at least not appearing to). He can look at a situation and see humor where most people wouldn't.

I also like his thoughts about relationships.

I'm only about two hundred pages in (little over half), but my favorite story so far is "Keeping Up."

It's about how his boyfriend Hugh has a habit of walking too fast and about twenty steps in front of him.

This particular time it was at a zoo in Australia. As he turns to say something to Hugh, he realizes he isn't there.
A zoo is a good place to make a spectacle of yourself, as the people around you have creepier, more photogenic things to look at. A gorilla pleasures himself while eating a head of iceberg lettuce, and it’s much more entertaining than the forty-something-year-old man who dashes around talking to himself. For me it’s always the same, a rehearsal of my farewell speech: “…because this time, buddy, it’s over. I mean it.” I imagine myself packing a suitcase, throwing stuff in without bothering to fold it. “If you find yourself missing me, you might want to get a dog, an old, fat one that can run catch up and make that distant panting sound you’ve grown so accustomed to. Me, though, I’m finished.”

I will walk out of the door and never look back, never return his calls, never open his letters. The pots and pans, all the things that we acquired together, he can have them, that’s how unfeeling I will be. “Clean start,” that’s my motto, so what do I need with a shoe box full of photographs, or the tan-colored belt he gave me for my thirty-third birthday, back when we first met and he did not yet understand that a belt is something you get from your aunt, and not your boyfriend, I don’t care who made it. After that, though, he got pretty good in the gift-giving department: a lifelike mechanical hog covered in real pig skin, a professional microscope offered at my height of my arachnology phrase, and, best of all, a seventh-century painting of a Dutch peasant changing a dirty diaper. Those things I would keep – and why not? I’d also take the desk he gave me, and the fireplace mantel, and, just on principle, the drafting table, which he clearly bought for himself and tried to pass off as a Christmas present.

Now it seemed that I would be leaving in a van rather than on foot, but, still, I was going to do it, so help me. I pictured myself pulling away from the front of our building, and then I remembered that I don’t drive. Hugh would have to do it for me, and well he should after everything he’d put me through. Another problem was where this van might go. An apartment, obviously, but how would I get it? It’s all I can do to open my mouth at the post office, so how am I going to talk to a real estate agent? The language aspect has nothing to do with it, as I’m no more likely to house-hunt in New York that I am in Paris. When discussing sums over sixty dollars, I tend to sweat. Not just on my forehead, but all over. Five minutes at the bank, and my shirt is transparent. Ten minutes, and I’m stuck to my seat. I lost twelve pounds getting the last apartment, and all I had to do was sign my name. Hugh handled the rest of it.

On the bright side, I have money, though I’m not exactly sure how to get my hands on it. Bank statements arrive regularly, but I don’t open anything that’s not personally addressed or looks like a free sample. Hugh takes care of all that, opening the icky mail and actually reading it. He knows when our insurance payments are due, when it’s time to renew our visas, when the warranty on the washer is about to expire. “I don’t think we need to extend this,” he’ll say, knowing that if the machine stops working he’ll fix it himself, the way he fixes everything. But not me. If I lived alone and something broke, I’d just work around it: use a paint bucket instead of a toilet, buy an ice chest and turn the dead refrigerator into an armoire. Call a repairman? Never. Do it myself? That’ll be the day.

I’ve been around for nearly half a century, yet still I’m afraid of everything and everyone. A child sits beside me on a plane and I make conversation, thinking how stupid I must sound. The downstairs neighbors invite me to a party and, after claiming that I have a previous engagement, I spend the entire evening confined to my bed, afraid to walk around because they might hear my footsteps. I do not know how to turn up the heat, send and e-mail, call the answering machine for my messages, or do anything remotely creative with a chicken. Hugh takes of all that, and when he’s out of town I eat like a wild animal, the meat still pink, with hair or feathers clinging to it. So is it any wonder that he runs from me? No matter how angry I get, it always comes down to this: I’m going to leave and then what? Move in with my dad? Thirty minutes of pure rage, and when I finally spot him I realize I’ve never been so happy to see anyone in my life.

“There you are,” I say. And when he asks where I have been, I answer honestly and tell him I was lost.

I just love him.


  1. David Sedaris rules. I would be happy to send you another book by him. Just let me know.

    Thanks for the interesting posts!

  2. i've got some david sedaris on my bookshelves...i'm a fan of that whole family (i want to go to amys house for dinner)...this book looks interesting. it's been years since i read me talk pretty one day so i might have to hit up thriftbooks.

  3. This book kept me company on a recent plane trip. It was the perfect length, and the perfect amount of gut-bustingly hilarious to make my seatmates wonder what kind of intermittent seizure or conniption I was suffering.

    My faves by him are Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and "The Santaland Diaries" essay from Holidays on Ice. If you can experience him reading his material, either on audiobook or live, I would go for it. He's a hilarious narrator.


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