I came late to David Sedaris. By late, I mean that I first read his essays in 2013 when I bought a copy of Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls for a friend’s birthday. She’d been telling me how much she enjoyed his writing and I figured this would be a welcome present.
Turns out it was the wrong friend – that is, it was her birthday but she’d never read Sedaris. She liked the book, though, and so did I, as I have a sneaky habit of reading new books before sending them on to friends for their birthdays. (Note: if you’re going to do this, try not to spill coffee on the pages. It’s a dead giveaway and you’ll just have to go out and buy the book again.)
As much as I loved that first book – first for me, anyway – I didn’t really get hooked on Sedaris until 2018, when I read Calypso. There’s an essay in it, written shortly after Trump was elected, called “A Number of Reasons I’ve Been Depressed Lately” and it contains such gems as his conversation with a longtime friend of the family who believes that Hillary Clinton is a member of the Illuminati and that Queen Elizabeth had Prince, the musician, murdered on her birthday:
“Why?” David asks. “Because his name was Prince?”
Sedaris checks out one of the websites this man follows and finds this story confirmed by an anonymous source – a “palace insider” – who reports hearing the Queen saying to another Illuminati member at a tea party “that before the year ends three more world-famous musicians must die”. Of course, all of this is nothing new in these days of bizarro conspiracy theories and crackpots burning up the airwaves but it was new to me, back then, and obviously new to Sedaris.
Pretty soon it seemed that, wherever I looked, there was David Sedaris. In a very short time he’d gone from being someone I’d never heard of to one of the funniest writers on the planet. Which he was, of course, long before I dscovered him.
Sedaris got his big break on National Public Radio. Ira Glass, who’d heard him in a Chicago club reading from his diaries, invited him to appear on his weekly local program, “The Wild Room”. A few years later, Sedaris moved to New York and it was there, again thanks to Glass, that he made his NPR debut on December 23 1992. He read an eight-minute monologue about working as an elf in SantaLand at Macy’s department store. After that, book offers poured in, along with requests from glossy magazines and meetings with TV producers.
“It was all luck and it all started with that radio piece,” Sedaris has said. “If it wasn’t for that, I’d probably still be cleaning apartments as a maid in New York.”
After dropping out of university, Sedaris had dabbled in visual and performance arts, without success, which was just as well because if he’d done well at either of those things we wouldn’t have Me Talk Pretty One Day, which is, so far, my favourite of his books. It was written mostly in France where his attempts to learn the language land him in a classroom with a truly sadistic, perhaps mentally unstable, teacher.
“‘I hate you,’ she said to me one afternoon. Her English was flawless. ‘I really, really hate you.’ Call me sensitive, but I couldn’t help but take it personally.”
Sedaris takes comfort in the knowledge that he’s not alone:
“Huddled in the hallways and making the most of our pathetic French, my fellow students and I engaged in the sort of conversation commonly overheard in refugee camps.
“‘Sometime me cry alone at night.’
“‘That be common for I, also, but be more strong, you. Much work and someday you talk pretty. People start love you soon. Maybe tomorrow, okay.'”
Eventually, on his fifth trip to France, he decides to limit himself to the words and phrases that people actually use.
“From the dog owners I learned ‘Lie down,’ ‘Shut up,’ and ‘Who shit on this carpet?’ The couple across the road taught me to ask questions correctly, and the grocer taught me to count. Things began to come together, and I went from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. ‘Is thems the thoughts of cows?’ I’d ask the butcher, pointing to the calves’ brains displayed in the front window. ‘I want me some lamb chop with handles on ’em.’”
Me Talk Pretty One Day won Sedaris the Thurber Prize for American Humor. He regularly appears in the New Yorker and on “This American Life”, and he’s been nominated for five Grammy Awards in the Best Spoken Word Album and Best Comedy Album categories. In 2019, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Sedaris cracks me up, but what he writes is often more darkly humorous than knee-slapping funny. He’s brutally candid about his foibles and that of his family – four siblings, one of whom is the talented actress and comedian, Amy Sedaris – and pulls no punches when discussing life with his longtime partner, Hugh Hamrick. In 2013, his sister, Tiffany, committed suicide. At the time of her death, he and Tiffany hadn’t spoken in eight years. Four years earlier, she turned up at the stage door at Symphony Hall in Boston. David had just finished a reading and was getting ready to sign books when he heard her calling him:
“David, David, it’s me,” she said. “It’s me, Tiffany. I have something for you.”
He asked the security guard to close the door on his sister. And he did. He never saw or spoke to her again.
“Not when she was evicted from her apartment. Not when she was raped. Not when she was hospitalized after her first suicide attempt. She was, I told myself, someone else’s problem. I couldn’t deal with her anymore.”
If you think that’s a hard thing to read, imagine how it would feel to write it. I had to put the book down at that point and reconsider my affection for the man. In the end, I picked it up again. As Sedaris himself has said, “There are things nobody wants to hear. But the disturbing things are great.”
Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000) and Calypso (2018) are published by Little, Brown and Company.