WHY DAVID SEDARIS IS SO (NON-) SMOKIN’ HOT: I must confess I hadn’t thought much about author David Sedaris until Rick Mercer interviewed him last June for The Globe & Mail. Even then, though I found Mercer’s interest intriguing, I still managed to miss Sedaris’ stints in July, in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, gamely plugging his latest book, When You Are Engulfed In Flames.
A few months ago I finally bought the book. Last week I finally got around to reading it. And now, of course, I get it. “I think perhaps you’re one of the funniest people on the planet,” Mercer told Sedaris, and I’ll definitely drink to that.
When You Are Engulfed In Flames (Little, Brown and Company) is a collection of short, compulsively amusing essays on Sedaris’ life and how he maintains his status as a compulsive screw-up. Gather all his books together – which I plan to do – and you may end up with one of the longest, most hysterical autobiographies in the history of literature.
“I’ve been around for nearly half a century,” he confides, “yet still I’m afraid of everything and everyone.” By his own admission, Sedaris is the guy who fibs to the downstairs neighbours, claiming he has a previous engagement, then spends “the entire evening confined to my bed, afraid to walk around because they might hear my footsteps.”
Sedaris recounts his childhood adventures with a tickling, detached bemusement. When his mother leaves him and his four sisters with an eccentric housekeeper for a week, they not-so-quietly rebel. Where did their mother find this Mrs. Peacock? (“Has Mom ever been to a woman’s prison?” asks his sister Amy, who will later become Amy Sedaris The Actress.)
Dutifully collecting evidence of the housekeeper’s derelict ways, he and his siblings cunningly anticipate their mother’s return, but not her response. (“Aren’t they just horrible?” she consoles Mrs. Peacock. “Honest to God, I don’t know how you put up with them for an entire week.”)
One of the greatest achievements of his life so far, clearly, is the fact that he has finally stopped smoking. The fact that he decides to go to Japan to do it – and decides to learn Japanese while he’s in the neighbourhood – is fabulous fodder for his largest single essay in this collection, a bizarrely amusing diary of his foibles in Tokyo appropriately entitled The Smoking Section.
My personal favourite is Sedaris’ egocentric, self-deprecating and hopelessly romantic account of trying to keep up with his boyfriend Hugh. When they travel together, he notes, “I’m a fast walker, but he has longer legs and likes to maintain a good twenty-foot lead. To the casual observer, he would appear to be running from me, darting around corners, intentionally trying to lose himself.”
When asked about his latest vacation, he writes, the answer is always the same.
“In Bangkok, in Ljubljana, in Budapest and Bonn: What did I see? Hugh’s back, just briefly, as he disappeared into a crowd.”
When he decides to leave Hugh once and for all, he rehearses his farewell speech (“… because this time, buddy, it’s over. I mean it”) and pictures himself pulling away from their building – until he remembers he doesn’t know how to drive. Or cook. Or look after his own finances.
“When discussing sums over sixty dollars,” he confesses, “I tend to sweat. Not just on my forehead, but all over. Five minutes at the bank, and my shirt is transparent. Ten minutes, and I’m stuck to my seat.”
He tries to imagine his life without Hugh, but he can’t.
And now that we’ve finally met, I can’t imagine contemporary American literature without David Sedaris.
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BEAR WITH ME: Sure, he’ll let sleeping dogs lie – but sleeping bears? Not a chance.
Tune in at 8 pm tonight and see it before it ricochets around the world on YouTube.
You’ll be glad you did.
TOMORROW: By Design