David Sedaris: Me Talk Pretty One Day

David Sedaris
Me Talk Pretty One Day
Little, Brown

 

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IT'S TEMPTING TO call Me Talk Pretty One Day a memoir, given that the author himself is the main character in nearly all of the 27 brief essays collected here. Let me suggest, however, that you read this book as a verbal cartoon of human foibles that happens to use David Sedaris's experiences as a backdrop. What powers these sketches is not an inherently fascinating life but the author's willingness to depict common moments in those profane, twisted, unbearably funny ways that lurk in the back of all our minds. Almost everything that falls under Sedaris's gaze is magnified to the point of the grotesque and the ridiculous.

The earlier essays detail a childhood in North Carolina where Sedaris and five siblings learned to negotiate the obsessions of a control-freak father whose dreams of perfect progeny were constantly interrupted by the unruly tykes of his waking hours. An entire essay is devoted to the youngest, crudest kid of the bunch: Self-nicknamed "the Rooster," this boy is so fiery and foul-mouthed that dad is reduced to a quivering apologist for the child's every flaw. Comparing the different moral yardsticks used in the household, the author writes:

 

When I was young, we weren't allowed to say "shut up," but once the Rooster hit puberty it had become acceptable to shout, "Shut your motherfucking hole." The drug laws had changed as well. "No smoking pot" became "no smoking pot in the house," before it finally petered out to "please don't smoke any more pot in the
living room."

Over-the-top comedy like this shows that the smooth surfaces of American domestic life usually find a way to rupture. The remainder of the book's first section follows an older David Sedaris as he flees north to Chicago and New York. These urban centers may be amenable to the eccentric, but even here Sedaris finds hypercolorful situations to paint, from an odd job with a "card-carrying communist" furniture mover ("The Great Leap Forward") to a stuffy dinner at an impossibly highbrow restaurant
("Today's Special").

The second half of Me Talk Pretty One Day, titled "Deux" for good reason, transports us to Sedaris's more recent past residing in Paris with his boyfriend Hugh, who serves as the not-so-straight straight man to our author's bumbling attempts to cope with the foreign. The first five of these essays, including the title piece, portray Sedaris as an incompetent student of the French language, absorbing abusive blows delivered by an instructor from hell, bewildered by a system of gendered nouns that, for instance, defines "vagina" as masculine. (Some of these pieces first appeared in Esquire magazine, though Sedaris is best known for his deadpan performances on the public-radio program This American Life.)

The final stretch of "Deux" stays in France, and displays a facility for lampooning both the small-mindedness of ugly American tourists and French snobs who stereotype us as greedy puritans. National identity is the dominant theme here, but what really holds the book together is Sedaris's bizarre encounters with seemingly normal circumstances. Like you and me, he struggles against an onslaught of annoyances; he just has the punch lines to make his life into comedy.

 
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