Thursday, October 22, 2009
David Sedaris’ dad has sniped that Sedaris reads aloud better than he writes. There’s something to that – the way he breathes his words to life, as he’s done on the David Letterman show, where he read to the audience (a rarity on TV, let alone Letterman) from an essay he wrote for Esquire’s “style” section, about seeking the men’s equivalent to women’s garter belts and lingerie:
“It was my search for something discreet, masculine and practical that led me to the Stadium Pal, an external catheter being marketed to sports fans, truck drivers… The Freedom Leg Bag can be used up to 12 times, making it both disgusting and cost-effective… In an open-air sporting arena, a piping-hot, 32-ounce bag of urine might go unnoticed, but not so in a stuffy airplane or a small, crowded bookstore. An hour after christening it, I smelled like a nursing home.”
His inflection ebbs and flows like a drive in the country; his voice carries an urbane lilt, like a less squeaky Truman Capote; he deliberately intones each word, like an incantation, to coax the laughter he knows it has the power to unlock. And laugh, the audience does.
In the realm of literary humor, Sedaris is the man, or so says a chorus of voices from Time (Humorist of the Year for Me Talk Pretty One Day); Chicago Tribune (“one of the greatest humorists writing today”); Publishers Weekly (“Garrison Keillor’s evil twin” – coincidentally, Keillor’s also in town this week). He’s been compared to New Yorker humorist James Thurber and described as a modern Mark Twain.
Steven Barclay is the director and founder of the agency, which represents Amy Tan, Robert Pinsky, Michael Chabon, Terry Gross and more. He started his company in 1995 and one of his first clients was then-new author and NPR commentator Sedaris. Long-time friends and colleagues, Barclay spoke in Sedaris’ stead, the globe-trotting author’s time having turned into a jam-packed Möbius loop of airports, hotels and concert halls.
“He’s always doing something,” Barclay says. “He likes it that way. He stays five hours after shows, signing until the cows come home.”
He’s in the midst of a 33-day tour that peppers the U.S. from Norfolk, Va., to Maui, Hawaii, including Carmel’s Sunset Center on Wednesday, Oct. 28.
Rather than promoting one of his own books, this tour assembles material for future works.
“He changes presentations every night,” says Barclay, who’s seen him in action repeatedly over the years. “[There’s] some overlap, but not much. He keeps notes of everything he reads in the city because he never wants to repeat or read from a published book. He’ll read new and unpublished material and gauge the laughter. He’ll put a little plus sign and minus sign, go back to his [hotel] room and edit.”
That kind of ethic mirrors that of comedians, but Sedaris is a humorist, Barclay insists: He just happens to be very good at “reading” his observations in front of audiences.
“Ira Glass was the first to recognize that it’s really easy to miss [Sedaris’] good writing when you’re laughing,” he says. Early on, Glass saw Sedaris’ sharp eye for the absurd and the mundane, his gift of language, and his fearless examination of himself and others, and he frequently put him on This American Life as guest commentator.
Now, the international bestselling author – with 7 million books in print in 25 languages – is much in demand not just for his cherished books, which he bestows on eager fans roughly once every four years, but also for his wry, scandalous live readings, and his warm, generous relationship with his readers.
While it’s been said that Sedaris has mellowed, he hasn’t relinquished his supple command of the written word, as evidenced by his Aug. 24 story in The New Yorker, “Laugh, Kookaburra,” about a trip to an outback Australian restaurant where he encounters a kookaburra bird, which triggers a flashback to his childhood with his sister – lovable comedienne Amy Sedaris – and his gruff father, constantly attired in just “underpants.”
In it, he trades in the scandalous language and satirical snark of his earlier dispatches in favor of a mature, reflective storytelling mode. It may end up on one of the audiobooks he likes to release, one of which was nominated for a Grammy. The next one, For Your Reading Pleasure, is coming in November.
“He’s also working on a new book, for 2010, of animal fables,” says Barclay. “They’re very idiosyncratic, Sedaris-esque stories about anthropomorphic animals – like the leech that lives in the asshole of a rhino and the rhino wants to charge him rent.”
In another appearance on Letterman, Sedaris, promoting his 2008 book of essays When You Are Engulfed in Flames, read to the public his personal stories about quitting smoking, his longtime boyfriend Hugh, and weird English phrases he encountered in Japan: “March 11. A booklet in our hotel room includes a section on safety awkwardly titled Best Knowledge of Disaster Damage Prevention and Favors to Ask of You. What follows are three paragraphs, each written beneath a separate, boldfaced heading: “When you check in the hotel room,” “When you find a fire,” and, my favorite, “When you are engulfed in flames.”
DAVID SEDARIS appears 8pm Wednesday, Oct. 28, at Sunset Center, San Carlos between Eighth and Ninth, Carmel. $52-$77. 620-2048, www.sunsetcenter.org.