Around the year 2000, one of my oldest and dearest friends, Dave, insisted I pick up a book entitled Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris. In the end, I think I borrowed the book, and I am fairly confident I have never returned it. This was one of the last books I read in an entire day. I remember starting it late on a Saturday morning, and finishing it in the evening. Straight through.
And when Sunday came around, I went back and read it again. It's that kind of book. It is that funny.
Now I'm a David Sedaris junkie, of course. I have read all of his works, and make it my own little Christmas tradition to read Holidays on Ice. I saw him when he came to St. Petersburg, and he signed my copy of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. He commented on my shirt being untucked, which it was. I was horrified at my fashion faux pas and delighted all the the same time. I like to think whenever David Sedaris thinks of his trip to St. Petersburg, he remembers the sloppy, fawning guy who bumbled around like a school girl. Maybe -- if I'm lucky -- he'll write a story about it.
When I read the work of other writers, I try to take something away from what they've done, but I don't try to copy it. Sedaris is so good, I've often found myself copying him, his style, his timing, the way he mixes his humor, a little dark, with some profoundly touching moments. He's the master, to be sure.
And so when last Christmas rolled around, my father-in-law got a little gold star (in my head) for picking up the latest Sedaris offering, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, as his present to me. This is a little bit different than any previous work from Sedaris. Most of his stuff is about his life. In fact, that's how he got started -- with a story, now contained in Holidays on Ice, about his brief time as a Macy's elf.
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a collection of very brief works of fiction. All of the characters within the stories are animals, but in a way that is incidental. I don't think there's a single, solitary story where you can't imagine that the animal who is the character is actually a person who kind of resembles that animal. The red parrot who is a hack journalist? The wise owl from the family of idiots? Baboon masseuse? Evil, deceptive crow?
Okay, maybe it helps to have illustrations by Ian Falconer, who is best known for creating Olivia (if you don't know, just ask a little kid, or turn on PBS Kids).
Here's the truth: it was hard for me to read this book and not imagine Sedaris hating me and his fan base as he wrote it. Many of the stories seem to be nothing but quasi-elaborate set-ups for cheap punchlines. Migrating warblers (imagine the suburban, bridge-playing, Rotary member, supper-club set retirees), who finally confess that they keep going to South America because it is beautiful and, "cheap, cheap, cheap."
I've always thought the term "groaner" was an exaggeration, but you can't read lines like this from the story about the parrot journalist and the Vietnamese potbellied pig museum curator and not find yourself writhing in physical discomfort:
Most of her stories were little more than puff pieces: interview the wealthy tortoise who'd shelled out money for the new speedway...
That line's saving grace, by the way, was the line before it:
The paper she worked at was called The Eagle, and she wrote for the Tempo section, which was later renamed Lifestyles and was now titled simply Living.
There are bits and pieces of that David Sedaris -- the one who can find one little thread of truth and untagle it from the whole mess and then gleefully stab it with his pen -- sprinkled around Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. In fact, when I was done, I realized that was kind of the point: to make you sort of squirm around and wonder what in the hell it is you're reading. What's more, I suspect this is the book he wanted to write. And given his success, and my lack of fashion sense, who am I to judge him?
You're not going to catch me writing something bad about Sedaris. If that's biased, I don't care. The guy is great, and he's done something different here. Weird, yes. But different.
I will do what I do with most Sedaris stuff: go back and read it again some time. If I get that same squirmy feeling, I'll know I was right about what he was up to.