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David Sedaris: Is he really that good?

May 6, 2010 |  1:06 pm

Davidsedaris_signs_2004

I first heard David Sedaris during his long-ago "This American Life" days and before, when his quavery delivery of stories of life on the edge rang out like nothing else on the radio. It might be going too far to say "This American Life" wouldn't be the radio show it is without David Sedaris, and Sedaris wouldn't be the author he is without "This American Life" -- but it might not. Something about how Sedaris could tell a story connected with listeners as much as the stories he told, and if he was finding his voice by writing on paper, many of us heard it before we read it.

Which made it all the more surprising when he admitted, during his sold-out reading at UCLA's Royce Hall Wednesday night, "I can't get beyond the sound of my own voice."

It was, of course, exactly that voice that the audience responded to. When he began speaking -- 15 anticipation-building minutes late -- there was a settling in. People were ready to listen, to be entertained, and most of all to laugh -- which we did. Sedaris' humor is heightened by its delivery, and the delivery was impeccable.

In his bestselling books -- "Holidays on Ice," "Naked," "Me Talk Pretty One Day," "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim" -- he's recorded his witty, askew observations and odd experiences. Writing about being a Macy's Christmas elf, his bad performance art, concerned teachers, his youth and parents and siblings (including actress Amy), his reflections have ranged from self-deprecation to confusion to pique.

But in recent years, as his genuine success as a writer and performer has solidified, Sedaris has gotten comfortable -- he moved to France and England, and has little to complain about. A 2006 New Yorker piece about shopping for his boyfriend, while cute -- he bought him a skeleton! -- was thin. It signaled that affluence had drained something essential out of Sedaris. Would he have nothing else to talk about but darling squabbles, his French country house and dinner parties?

Wednesday night proved that he does. He read two stories from his next book, coming in October, "Squirrel Sees Chipmunk: A Modern Bestiary." It was going to be "A Collection of Fables," he explained, "but fables have morals." In fact, when he revealed the origins of the first story, a bloody allegory titled "The Vigilant Rabbit," it turns out it does have a moral -- if you work in airport security and give Sedaris a hard time, he just might write a wickedly funny fable about you. It and the second -- the at times cringingly grotesque "The Faithful Setter" -- both had emotional and intellectual weight, all while making the audience laugh.

The most intimate part of the reading were the dozen or so snippets he read from his diaries (moral: if you do something stupid at the grocery store, Sedaris will make wickedly funny jokes about it in his diary). But the most impressive element was an essay he'd begun a few years ago that had been left unfinished.

That essay, a riff on flying, is now complete. It has jokes, including one hysterically funny metaphor (I was laughing too hard to get it down right, and I won't spoil it with my half-witted version). It has funny if petty observations, and then pulls back for perspective on the petty observations. It has political discomfort and a political position. Just when it seems like it's a charming series of digressions, the thread in it pulls taught, and all the pieces come together. It is writing in fine, fine form.

Is David Sedaris of 2010 someone you should go to see in person? Yes, you should. He is such a popular speaker that he now does reading tours twice a year; this one is 35 cities in 35 days, he announced. The audience gave him a collective, sympathetic "ohh." "But I enjoy it," he said. "I do. It's not that hard if you're staying at a nice hotel."

He went on to tell the story of place he'd stayed in that he didn't find nice at all -- instead of a high-end hotel, it was a bed and breakfast with a hostilely attentive chef. "If you stay at places like that," he mused, "you have lots of good stories." Maybe that's the challenge for a writer like Sedaris, who can afford the five-star lifestyle -- dialing it down to experience the rough and uncomfortable textures of the world. For a good story, it might just be worth it.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: David Sedaris signing books after a 2004 reading at UCLA. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times

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