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Just Like the Rest of Us 

by Sheri Boggs


If we could ask David Sedaris anything - anything - first and foremost would be "Dude, you live in a village in Normandy. What keeps you coming back to Spokane?"


It's not that we don't appreciate Sedaris here; if anything it's exactly the opposite. His reading two years ago at the Met not only sold out but became the stuff of local literary legend, with people standing around outside the Met for an hour afterwards talking about it. His books tend to occupy the No. 1 slot in the bestseller display at Auntie's. Still, you gotta wonder about a guy who would give up springtime in Paris to come, well, here.


Perhaps there's something about this city that reminds him of home. Not just the suburban Raleigh, N.C., he evokes so hilariously in Me Talk Pretty One Day and in his most recent book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim -- although there are days when Spokane can resemble nothing so much as the endless lines of Christmas-applique'd-shoppers-shuffling-forward-with-buffet trays he evokes in "Dinah the Christmas Whore." Maybe Spokane reminds Sedaris of something deeper, more familial.


To say that family figures prominently in Sedaris' writing is an understatement. His fiction, collected in his earlier works Barrel Fever and Naked, contains some of the sharpest, most dead-on observations in contemporary literature. But when he writes about his family - IBM exec dad Lou, chain-smoking mom Sharon, his Greek grandmother Ya-Ya - there's the sublimely delicious precision born of an entire adolescence's worth of frustration, mimicry and grudging affection. His five siblings, too, are fair game, including relentlessly normal Lisa, redneck youngest Paul, and even David's co-collaborator Amy. In the early '90s, the two middle Sedaris children went on to write and produce plays under the moniker "The Talent Family." David writes fondly of his lovely sister Amy's predilection for becoming a panoply of disturbing/unfortunate/hilarious characters and wearing a fat-suit home just to upset their appearance-conscious father. (That's her, in fact, on the cover of this month's Bust wearing two lemon halves in her bra for that "extra perky" look.)


Sedaris vaulted to national prominence in the late '90s as a regular contributor to Ira Glass's This American Life on NPR. Perhaps it was having a wider forum for his stories, perhaps it was the way in which his voice - softly tenor, ruminative and self-deprecating - brought those stories to life, but suddenly Sedaris became a sensation. The man who once worked as a Macy's Christmas elf and a grunt for a New York moving company now has book sales in the several millions and performs to sold-out crowds at Carnegie Hall.


Even after five books and an entire canon of Sedaris family stories --each delivered with its own bittersweet, piquant final thrust -- there's still a second question we'd like to ask Sedaris: "Do you embellish? Tell us the truth. Nobody's life has that many stories that end in such perfect, tonic little realizations. Some of this must be at the very least exaggerated, if not made up altogether."


Hanging in the air where Sedaris' answer would be -- had we been able to ingratiate ourselves into his "tight publication schedule" for an interview -- is the recent memory of listening to him on CD, reading "Us and Them" from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. He tells the story of a TV-less neighbor family who were so hopelessly out of touch with the rest of their 1960s neighborhood that they had never even heard of Lost in Space. They even had the audacity to show up on the Sedaris front porch for trick-or-treating the day after Halloween. Sedaris recalls how, when his socially adept mother asks her kids to go get "the candy" (meaning candy from their own Halloween sacks), he chooses to bolt his own. She finds him sitting on the bed, his mouth stuffed with drooly chocolate, scrabbling after Necco wafers and Sweetarts to keep those, also, from falling into the hands of the hapless neighbor kids. Deftly, the story becomes one not about a weird neighborhood family but about his own greed and shame. And even then, something happens so that the story isn't even about Sedaris anymore but about all of us. As the reader or listener you stop, suddenly complicit, suddenly remembering your own half-hidden selfish acts and moments of red-faced, stung humility. It's moments like this, the perfect ending of "watching the news, and whatever comes on after the news," that ring so essentially true in Sedaris' work. Truth, always a subjective little beast in the art of essay and memoir, glimmers from the essential facts and how they're reconstructed, hitting us like a sucker punch in the places where we'd prefer not to tell the truth. Far from losing his edge and rehashing the same stories over and over, then, Sedaris has become an even more incisive. He's a subtle and gimlet-eyed raconteur of the modern neurotic mind.


Hanging in the air where Sedaris' answer would be -- had we been able to ingratiate ourselves into his "tight publication schedule" for an interview -- is the recent memory of listening to him on CD, reading "Us and Them" from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. He tells the story of a TV-less neighbor family who were so hopelessly out of touch with the rest of their 1960s neighborhood that they had never even heard of Lost in Space. They even had the audacity to show up on the Sedaris front porch for trick-or-treating the day after Halloween. Sedaris recalls how, when his socially adept mother asks her kids to go get "the candy" (meaning candy from their own Halloween sacks), he chooses to bolt his own. She finds him sitting on the bed, his mouth stuffed with drooly chocolate, scrabbling after Necco wafers and Sweetarts to keep those, also, from falling into the hands of the hapless neighbor kids. Deftly, the story becomes one not about a weird neighborhood family but about his own greed and shame. And even then, something happens so that the story isn't even about Sedaris anymore but about all of us. As the reader or listener you stop, suddenly complicit, suddenly remembering your own half-hidden selfish acts and moments of red-faced, stung humility. It's moments like this, the perfect ending of "watching the news, and whatever comes on after the news," that ring so essentially true in Sedaris' work. Truth, always a subjective little beast in the art of essay and memoir, glimmers from the essential facts and how they're reconstructed, hitting us like a sucker punch in the places where we'd prefer not to tell the truth. Far from losing his edge and rehashing the same stories over and over, then, Sedaris has become an even more incisive. He's a subtle and gimlet-eyed raconteur of the modern neurotic mind.





David Sedaris at the Met, 901 W. Sprague, on Thursday, April 21 at 7 pm. Sedaris will be joined by young adult novelist Chris Crutcher and poet Michael Heffernan, who will read after Sedaris. Tickets: $40. Call 325-SEAT.

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