It is a truth universally recognized, but rarely published, that for an acutely calibrated, wittily embroidered appreciation of life’s infinite little absurdities you can’t beat the comedy stylings of a funny gay guy. Let whimsical Jewish gals, diverting bisexual fellas, and sidesplitting Chinese chicks complain of stereotyping, the fact remains: A funny gay guy sees the world with limited-edition contact lenses that allow him to keep his vision on two realms of sexual and cultural interest at once — the straight world where he gets his gaudy junk mail and the gay world where he reads his love letters. From the inanities of day jobs to the snobberies of fancy restaurants, from the confounding antics of parents to the baffling self-expression of their adult children, it’s his ability to see both sides that allies David Sedaris with literature’s spriest and most hilarious gay voices — from Oscar Wilde to Paul Rudnick.
As Me Talk Pretty One Day attests, these days Sedaris glitters as one of the wittiest writers around, an essayist and radio commentator who only appears to be telling simple then-what-happened anecdotes. A Sedaris adventure begins forthrightly enough — in the yarn that made him famous, he recounts former part-time employment as an elf in Macy’s Santaland — but between what catches his attention and what provokes his dyspepsia, he creates an irresistibly inviting cosmos of happenstance and obdurate will.
Following the successes of Barrel Fever and Naked, his new collection combines original material with pieces that first appeared in The New Yorker and Esquire or on radio. (He’s a regular on NPR’s This American Life.) More to the point, thematically they combine stories inspired by Sedaris’ Greek-American family with stories inspired by his current life in Paris, where he now lives with his boyfriend, Hugh. And that’s where two other truths universally recognized become clear: First, a happy romantic relationship is one of life’s great gifts but also one of humor writing’s biggest challenges. And second, the escapades of Americans in France — among all those odd French people! — are generally less compelling than those involved in the escapades believe.
In other words, the title story in Me Talk Pretty One Day — about Sedaris’ French classes in Paris, in which ”my fellow students and I engaged in the sort of conversation commonly overheard in refugee camps” — is obvious and flavorless. On the other hand, the tales about his voluble parents and five siblings launch the author on fabulous digressive observations. In ”Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities,” Sedaris’ jazz-loving father’s fantasy of turning his children into a swinging combo propels the musically uninspired son to guitar lessons with a ”perfectly formed midget” who encourages his young student to imagine the guitar as a woman and name the instrument accordingly. Sedaris lets us know, however, that he would rather call it Oliver and learn the chords for the Oscar Mayer bologna jingle.
Many of the autobiographical sketches are merciless to their author but generous to others. He loves his scientific father, his bohemian mother, his artistic sisters and scrappy brother; he reflects on his years as a scroungy performance artist jittery on drugs; he memorializes departed family pets. A week after putting an old cat to sleep, he writes, ”She’d never expressed any great interest in the outdoors, so I scattered her remains on the carpet and then vacuumed her back up.” When his mother sends him a check to cover the cost of the cremation, she writes ”Pet Burning” on the line marked ”Memo.”
This collection is, in its way, damned by its own ambitious embrace of variety; with so many pieces assembled, the stronger ones always punish the weaker. ”Big Boy,” an unusually raunchy short contemplation about the contents of a certain toilet bowl on a certain Easter Sunday in Chicago, is so outrageous as to make negligible ”The City of Light in the Dark,” about watching American movies in Paris theaters. But reading or listening to David Sedaris is well worth the lulls for the thrills. Listing the requirements he once drew up for potential boyfriends, he states, ”They could not consider the human scalp an appropriate palette for self-expression, could not own a rainbow-striped flag, and could not say they had ‘discovered’ any shop or restaurant currently listed in the phone book.”
With high standards like these, it’s no wonder Sedaris is in such demand as a beacon of comic sanity in a terminally chic world. B+