review by Hal Jacobs
Here's an idea for a new real-world TV show. Seven American humorists are stranded on a remote tropical island. Each week the audience chooses one funny guy/gal to boot off the atoll into shark-infested waters. The final survivor wins all the bananas.
My guess is that David Sedaris would win - with Steve Martin making a respectable finish and Jerry Seinfeld an early appetizer. Why Sedaris? Because the situation is tailor-made for him - it's absurd, but familiar; simple, yet jaded; and it's filled with one-liners.
Why Sedaris? Because everyone would be dying to read his account of the experience in his next collection of short, biting essays.
In "Me Talk Pretty One Day," the best-selling author, who came to fame as a disgruntled, Macy's Santaland elf, once again goes bravely where many of us have gone before - public schools in the '60s, shopping malls, state colleges, Manhattan, French class, dysfunctional family get-togethers. But whereas most of us start feeling numb and woozy, Sedaris goes for the jugular. He's meticulous and razor-sharp funny - at times a rogue, but always a gentleman.
In "Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities," Sedaris writes about the time his father signed him up for guitar lessons at the local mall music store with a midget named Mister Mancini. During the first lesson, the fastidiously dressed guitar maestro stands on a chair and plays "Light My Fire." He instructs Sedaris - who would have preferred a brand-name vacuum cleaner to a guitar, and who likes boys more than girls - to view his instrument as "a stacked woman" and "grab her by the neck and make her holler".
In "Twelve Moments in the Life of the Artist," Sedaris drops out of art school when he discovers that he can't draw, paint, make prints, sculpt or toss pots. He does, however, discover crystal methamphetamine and a gang of conceptual artists, which leads to an exhibit at the local art museum of his crated garbage.
"This was the art world I'd been dreaming of, where God-given talent was considered an unfair advantage and a cold-blooded stare merited more praise than the ability to render human flesh."
The second half of the book deals with Sedaris's experiences of living part-time in France and trying desperately, but unsuccessfully, to grasp the nuances of the French language. To his mind, "a masculine kilo of feminine tomatoes presents a sexual problem easily solved by asking for two kilos of tomatoes."
"Pica Pocketoni" is the most hilarious piece of the collection - although you may not want to read this piece in a public space, as I did, where your loud, uncontrollable laughing may be mistaken for insanity.
The story begins with Sedaris riding the Paris Me'tro. After observing a few loud American tourists, he casually notes that American vacationers may be "the trumpeting elephants of the human race." In no time at all he becomes wedged between an American couple in their late forties - "bright new his-and-her sneakers suggested that they might be headed somewhere dressy for dinner."
When the Americans begin loudly insulting the author and guest star of National Public Radio, who is quietly minding his own business (that is, them), Sedaris makes three observations: (1) "It's a common mistake for vacationing Americans to assume that everyone around them is French and therefore speaks no English whatsoever." (2) "I was now licensed to hate this couple as much as I wanted." (3) "In disliking them, I was forced to recognize my own pretension, and that made me hate them even more." Just as Sedaris spares no one around him (except, curiously, his boyfriend Hugh), neither does he spare himself.
Even after the Americans loudly voice their concern that Sedaris is scheming to snatch their wallets, he still doesn't bother to reveal himself. After all, he's not interested in an apology or their short-lived public embarrassment. He rather enjoys playing the role of a stinky, conniving pickpocket.
The only one of the 28 stories (15 previously published or broadcasted on BBC Radio 4) that doesn't click is the lead-off piece, "Go Carolina." In this one, the fifth-grade Sedaris is singled out for speech therapy because of his lisp. However, he observes that the only students who attend speech class are boys like him "who kept movie star scrapbooks and made their own curtains." Sedaris's lazy tongue doesn't improve, but he learns to hide it. The story comes closer to a feeling of "oh, woe is me" than any other in the collection. The reader can't help but feel sorry for the author - a mistake Sedaris avoids elsewhere in the collection.
An edited version of this review appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunday, June 25, 2000
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