David Sedaris is best heard out loud. Though his books are certainly funny to read -- among them the vicious Barrel Fever and the painfully comic Naked -- Sedaris' humor shines best through his voice. High-pitched, deadpan, and mildly Southern -- he grew up in North Carolina -- Sedaris' speech adds an extra element of queeny vulnerability to his stories. Whether he's reading snippets from his diary (as he did for a packed house at the Haight's Booksmith last year) or telling tales from Paris on NPR, it's the talk that matters.
Sedaris debuted on national radio in 1992 on the NPR show Morning Edition, reporting on his stint as a bitter, costumed elf in Macy's SantaLand. Now he's everywhere -- drafting plays, placing essays in The New Yorkerand Esquire, speaking on public radio's This American Life. You might think we'd be sick of him by now, but his humor just gets better. In his latest book, Me Talk Pretty One Day-- being made into a film by Wayne Wang -- Sedaris revisits familiar territory: his excruciating childhood. As in Barrel Fever and Naked (his other book, Holidays on Ice, reprints many essays from the earlier volumes), Me Talk Pretty presents the perverse cruelty of his youth as a lisping, obsessively clean, tic-laden kid, undermotivated yet filled with grandiose dreams. Only now he's grown up and moved to Paris -- and he can't speak French.
The key to Sedaris' humor is not his cleverness but his unsparing self-deprecation. Though he hates everyone around him, he hates himself more (or so it would seem). Even as he mocks the foibles of his peers, his friends, his family, his bosses, and the regular people he encounters in his peripatetic life, he looks at himself with unstinting frankness. Reading or hearing his work is like sitting in on a therapy session with the class clown. What he reveals in his books and essays are exaggerated versions of what we all go through: rejection, embarrassment, and rage, tempered by feelings of superiority.
Sedaris sightings sell out quickly, so if you don't have tickets for this one already, you may be out of luck. But he'll be back in June, touring local bookstores for the paperback edition of Me Talk Pretty; confirmed appearances include Stacey's, A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books, and Cody's. Meanwhile, true Sedaris groupies eagerly await his appearance in April 2002 with fellow This American Life commentators Sarah Vowell and David Rakoff; all who saw last year's show with Vowell and Sedaris know how well they play off each other. If you're really desperate, you can always get his books on audiotape -- read by the author, of course.