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The Arts
10.22.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Anne Fishbein
hottie : David Sedaris reads this Sunday from his new book, 'When You Are Engulfed in Flames.'

He Make Funny All Day

David Sedaris plumbs the depths of bad French, too many cigarettes and coming out of the closet at the Santa Cruz Civic this weekend.

By Molly Zapp


David Sedaris may very well be the only writer alive who can write about exchanging uncomfortable pleasantries with the neighborhood child molester without making either himself or "Jackie" come off as morally reprehensible quasi humans.

In his most recent book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Sedaris painfully recites awkward pidgin French small-talk with the aging sex offender not because he particularly likes Jackie, but because his upbringing didn't allow him to rebuke an extended hand waiting for a shake. Instead of being especially disturbing, his account is somehow reassuring for longtime Sedaris fans: nope, selling 7 million copies and receiving heaps of critical acclaim haven't made their favorite author any more socially graceful.

The author of Me Talk Pretty One Day and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim extrapolates on themes that run throughout his previous works: the joys of rented-room living, family vacations and quirky conversations with random folks he meets in public places. With wry insight and inappropriate-laughter-in-public-inducing humor, Flames splices deadpan wit with more than a few slivers of melancholic nostalgia.

Flames provides insights into the experiences that have provided material for dozens of essays: the first time he smoked pot, why he began smoking cigarettes, how he met his boyfriend Hugh, coming out of the closet and being approached by strangers for odd random sex. In true Sedaris style (well, it is true, right?), the latter of those two run together. In "Road Trips," Sedaris, then 20, closeted and virginal, gets picked up by an elderly couple while hitchhiking. Naturally, the conversation begins with the husband propositioning Sedaris to pleasure his wife, at which point he drops the homo bomb on them. A few months later, hitchhiking again, Sedaris receives another sexual offer from a male truck driver: "I mean, why not give someone a blow job? It's just a penis, right? Probably no worse for you than smoking," the truck driver says. Without spoiling the ending, let's just say it was anti-climactic.

In "The Smoking Section," which makes up nearly one-quarter of the book, Sedaris delves into detail about first starting and eventually quitting, one by one, alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes, the last of which he finally quit while living in Tokyo and failing to learn Japanese. He waxes on about the demonization of cigarettes and the recent anti-tobacco sloganeering that seems to have turned cigarette smoker into a near synonym for immoral bastard who probably tortures puppies. "It's safe to assume that by 2025, guns will be sold in vending machines, but you won't be able to smoke anywhere in America," he writes. The success of the essay depends on his ability to appeal to smokers and nonsmokers alike, and that he does smashingly well. His masterful writing skills allow the pack-a-day crowd, wake-and-bakers, recent quitters and vocal anti-tobacco readers whose smoking experiences are limited to one puff on a joint 20 years ago in college all feel like they get the joke.

Perhaps no humorist writing today is as adept as Sedaris in constructing himself and those he interacts with as simultaneously highly relatable and off-the-wall, whacked-out strange. The multifarious personal experiences Sedaris side-splittingly describes throughout all of his writings enable readers to alternately see him as an astute and witty comrade navigating the mundane and absurd details of everyday life, and as published proof that at least someone in the world is decidedly more odd and socially awkward than they.


DAVID SEDARIS appears Sunday, Oct. 26, at 7:30pm at the Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz in an event sponsored by Bookshop Santa Cruz and UC Santa Cruz Arts & Lectures. Tickets are $25-$36 at www.santacruztickets.com or 831.420.5260.


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