Bridgewater, N.J. — Often when David Sedaris is bicycling alone along secluded Normandy roads of his adopted country, or when he is swimming laps in the neighborhood pool, his gray matter turns a few shades darker.
This is why he likes iPods. Instead of listening to the voice inside his head, he can listen, via podcast, to the pleasant liquid pitch of NPR’s Terry Gross and whomever she happens to be interviewing. If he forgets the iPod, then he is left thinking about ... about what, exactly?
“Everyone who has ever done me wrong. If I am in a swimming pool or on a bicycle, my thoughts turn to everyone who has Ever. Done. Me. Wrong.”
His voice drops low, “wrong” left hanging in the air like a bitter semicolon. He is small, maybe 5’ 5,” neatly ironed and tucked-in, and so he comes off like a malevolent wee mastermind.
Then he smiles, shrugs, and in the tone of mild bewilderment one might use after discovering one’s eyeglasses in the guest bathroom when you’d swear you hadn’t been in there all day, he says, “It’s the darnedest thing!”
He’s sitting in a Starbucks in northern New Jersey. It’s located in one of those carefully pleasant outdoor shopping oasis — designed to be “walkable,” with shoppers tripping from Coldwater Creek to Origin, but difficult to reach without a car. Sedaris doesn’t drive, and so he arrived here through a real-life game of Frogger, scurrying over several lanes of traffic from his Marriott across the thruway. He is on the second day of a 35-day tour.
“I like being my own business,” Sedaris says, mentioning how he sometimes manipulates the queues at his book signings to bring the back people to the front, or grabs a teen-ager from the audience and slips him 20 bucks to introduce him.
“When someone complains about that I can say, it’s my business. I don’t have to be an equal-opportunity employer. I can discriminate against the handicapped if I want.”
He knows it’s a shocking line. This is why he said it.
During such moments, it is perhaps good that his longtime boyfriend doesn’t accompany him on tours, because Hugh Hamrick would be appalled. “Sometimes it’s good to have a Hugh on your shoulder, saying, ‘Don’t do that. Don’t say that,’” Sedaris offers.
The big moment might have been “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” the 2001 collection that was subsequently supposed to become a feature film until Sedaris called off the deal, or maybe “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim” three years later, or maybe it was his NPR debut way back in 1992. In any case, the causal event is not as important as the end result: David Sedaris has become, to a certain portion of America, the most beloved living humorist.
Even grander, Sedaris has become one-third of the Holy Trinity of modern American literature — a writer that this certain portion (young, educated, white) exalts with the highest hosannas, as if they personally discovered him and must personally spread his gospel. The other two writers are Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace. To be in the Holy Trinity, you apparently must be named David. This is very unfortunate for Jonathan Franzen.
Foster Wallace died too tragically (a suicide) and too soon. Eggers has recently turned his attention to screenwriting and children’s literacy. But there is still Sedaris, spinning sardonic and spectacular tales of his North Carolina childhood or New Yorker annals of his quotidian Davidian moments. These intimacies are so adored that a few years ago, when a New Republic reporter presented a meticulous story outlining how Sedaris’”nonfiction” was embellished, the literary community reacted with disgust not toward Sedaris but toward the reporter for questioning him.
“I have a bigger audience than most people,” Sedaris says, “but there are people who deserve it more than me.” On tours, he likes to recommend these other writers, ordering a hundred or so of their books at the lecture center and then recommending that the audience buy those works instead. This benevolence only further stokes the worship.
“I’ve seen teen-agers carrying his books around the way you used to see them carrying around Salinger or Vonnegut,” writes David Remnick via e-mail. Remnick is the editor of the New Yorker, where Sedaris regularly publishes. “If there is any justice” in the way that future generations perceive his work, “a book like ‘Naked’ will have a life no less lasting than ‘My Life and Hard Times.’”
Comparing him to James Thurber is a cautious move — others have gone straight for Mark Twain.
Sedaris writes about refinishing apartments in New York. He writes about learning guitar from a midget. He writes about his chain-smoking mom, his musty grandma, his five siblings — always with the same mix of wonder and repulsion. In every story, he is the salty-sweet, the apologetically caustic, the only person whose essays could realistically prompt a reader to pause and ponder: I never realized how funny it could be to live next door to a child molester!
In his seventh work, released last week, he abandons the form that made him famous. “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” is a book of short animal fables featuring an AIDS-injected lab rat, a parrot who goads a pig into an eating disorder, a self-pitying bear who becomes truly happy only when she is enslaved in the circus and can finally earn her misery.
A purebred dog in “The Faithful Setter” tries to explain to his wife that his stud visits are work, not pleasure, but “she says that if it’s a paycheck I’m after, I could just as easily lug around a blind person.”
He began working on it seven years ago. “I was reading a book of African folk tales, and I thought, I could do better than this,” Sedaris says.
“The book is flawless,” says Sedaris’ sister Amy, herself a comedian, actress and author with her own culty worshipers who has collaborated with her brother on several projects. “It’s dark in the way I just love.”
They’re all dark, aren’t they? In Sedaris’ last collection, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames,” he recounts the indignities of a prolonged stay in Tokyo and being the worst student in his Japanese class. But readers had already been through one round of humiliating language lessons when he moved to France a decade ago in “Me Talk Pretty One Day.”
Still, it’s one thing to write about your life when your life is housecleaning or dealing with repugnant child-care workers or projecting yuletide mirth as a department store elf. If your life, however, is writing about your life, then how do you find time to live in ways worth writing about? Does being a famous self-parodist make it harder to be a good self-parodist?
“I worry about that sometimes,” he says. “Lately it seems like I’m either in a room by myself, or I’m at the airport, or I’m on a book tour. I’ve had a couple stories that take place on a plane in the New Yorker, and I keep expecting them to say, ‘OK, that’s it. You can never write about planes or airports again.’”
He doesn’t want to become gimmicky — to traipse off to another foreign country and foreign language, for example — and he rejects assignments that seem too high-concept, as in, Wouldn’t it be funny if David ...
He is still a committed vehicle of quirk. The no-driving thing, for one, and the fact that he “got the Internet” only two years ago, and he phrases it that way, too — “Got the Internet,” the way parents “use the Google” — though at times one wonders how much the naivete is shtick.
“What’s that?” he asks innocently.
It’s a BlackBerry.
Sedaris’ right-place/right-time discovery is almost as well-known as his work. He was an impoverished 30-something when public radio’s Ira Glass heard him read some of his work at a Chicago bar. A few years later, around the holidays, Glass remembered the performance and phoned Sedaris to ask if he had any Christmas-themed essays. Sedaris sent him “SantaLand Diaries,” about his work as a Macy’s elf; Glass, then working for NPR’s “Morning Edition,” accepted based on the paper copy, not hearing the story out loud until Sedaris recorded it several days later.
“He got to the part of the story where he sings like Billie Holiday,” Glass recalls, “and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my, we have entered very unusual territory at this point.’”
The Billie Holiday impression, if you haven’t heard it, is simultaneously hysterical, embarrassing and emotionally raw. And he sounds exactly like Billie Holiday. “Morning Edition” got more requests for cassette copies of that performance, Glass says, than any other broadcast in the show’s history.
“He gets a lot of credit for being a funny writer,” Glass says. “But the thing that makes the word memorable is that there’s an emotional note in it,” Glass says. A note that is, he says, “more like yearning.”
Asked who from his past might have something deep to say, Sedaris thinks for a moment. “Everyone always wants to talk to Ira or talk to my sister Amy,” he complains, and then suggests phoning Evelyne Hallberg, an executive secretary for the Chicago Metal Finishers Institute who launched his career as a house cleaner.
Hallberg, reached at work, says:
“He does great bathrooms. He’s a very conscientious cleaner. ... He spent a long time scraping dead squirrels off the crawl space floor.”
Hallberg met Sedaris when he was a 20-something student at the Art Institute in Chicago, eking out a living with handyman work. She hired him to refinish the wood in her dining room; when he was finished, he asked if she had any other jobs and she offered to see if any of her friends needed a house cleaner. “To be honest, I thought he was going to move into my house,” she says. “He was so poor. He would walk miles to the grocery store to save 10 cents on a pound of meat.”
Hallberg has read some of her ex-helper’s works, but occasionally feels that she just doesn’t get it. “He always tells me I read his stuff wrong. I don’t know how you can read it ‘wrong.’”
Anything else, Ms. Hallberg?
Eventually, Sedaris did move in with her, while plotting his move to New York. During that time he religiously kept the same daily schedule. He would work all day at some manual labor job, then go to IHOP and write for three hours, then come home for a quick dinner, then retreat to his room and write more until midnight or later.
His fans and detractors, she says, “have no idea how hard he works.”
Inside Sedaris’ left shirt pocket, he keeps an omnipresent notebook, a little spiral-bound one, in which he writes down everything that happens that might later be of use. If he walks out of the house and realizes he’s forgotten it, he turns around and goes home. “I might see a worm attacking a centipede. I might see a bumper sticker,” he says. “I don’t know how to turn off that part of myself that exploits everyone and everything that I come into contact with.”
When asked whether he might consider sharing a few observations from the previous week, he raises one eyebrow but then obligingly flips it open and begins thumbing through pages.
“I went to my cousin’s daughter’s wedding, and my cousin had gotten a pedicure, and then her toenail fell off right before the wedding, so she glued it on with Krazy Glue.” He pauses. “So I wrote that down.”
“I was in the airport in Rochester in the security line, and this woman said — and this was just music to me — ‘I had to throw away two perfectly good Dr Peppers to get on this plane. Do you know how hard it is to find a Dr Pepper in this town, even in restaurants?’”
Or this: Sometimes, on tour, he likes to have a little theme night, asking the audience to share any good dental stories they might have, for example, or anything about rudeness. One night a young woman told him about her experiences working in a country club restaurant, and the older lady who summoned her to the table and asked her to hold out her hand. When she did, the woman spit into it a mouthful of chicken salad — puh — saying nastily, “There’s a bone in it.”
“I always feel so bad for people who don’t write,” Sedaris says. “Because what do they do with that? If someone does that to me, it’s like they handed me a check. It doesn’t make me feel bad about myself. It just makes me feel lucky.”
Then he closes the notebook, finishes his coffee, and goes off to iron his shirt before the evening’s reading.