A fumbling reviewer once threw David Sedaris a backhanded compliment by declaring that his writing was void of trenchant social commentary: "He appears to have little interest beyond his own life and his family."
"It's so true," Sedaris says, laughing. "When I read that, I felt a little sting of recognition."
But then, most writers would kill to have such raw material as Sedaris's offbeat personal adventures, his exceedingly quirky family and friends -- and the deadly satiric talent to bring it all to life on paper. Since attracting a cult following in 1992 with his "Santaland Diaries" readings on National Public Radio (a running account of his miserable job as an elf at Macy's), Sedaris has emerged as the premier humorist of the Clinton era. Likened to James Thurber and Fran Liebowitz, he is a regular contributor to public radio's "This American Life" and Esquire and draws crowds on the lecture circuit, reading from his diaries and essays.
His fourth book, Me Talk Pretty One Day, is a collection of absurdist ruminations on his struggles with school and family life in North Carolina, with odd jobs and marginal characters in Manhattan, and with the impenetrable language and culture of France, an adopted home he embraced largely because of an absence of no-smoking areas and a ready supply of stuffed pets. "If you see a taxidermied kitten, it just raises emotional questions," he says.
No one close to Sedaris is immune from his sardonic but affectionate celebration of the weird -- not his boyfriend, Hugh; his gorgeous sister, Amy, a born actress who dresses up in a fat suit to appall her proud father; his dad, Lou, who hoards food well past its expiration date and winds up eating his hat; not even his crystal-meth dealer, whose decision to check into rehab curtails the author's less-than-promising career as a performance artist. There's even a foray into bathroom etiquette that plumbs new depths of potty humor.
Yet Sedaris's greatest theme remains himself, in all his compulsive, flawed glory. One of the book's most poignant pieces recounts his boyhood duel of wits with a speech therapist who sought to correct his lisping: "None of the therapy students were girls. They were all boys like me who kept movie star scrapbooks and made their own curtains."
But being typecast as a failure isn't destiny, as Sedaris discovered. "My high school Spanish teacher took us to Spain, where everybody has a lisp," he recalls. "There's a place for everybody. If you can't pronounce your 'r,' if you say 'Wobutt Deneewo,' you move to Providence, Rhode Island, and people will think you're a native. You either have to tough it out where you're from, which never really interested me, or try to find that place where you fit in."
Fortunately, in France Sedaris has found a place he doesn't fit in. "I like not understanding the place," he says. "I have more to write about when I'm in a situation where I'm being given a hard time."
In his home-away-from-home, Sedaris has been abused not only by chalk-throwing, exasperated French teachers ("Every day spent with you is like having a cesarean section," one tells him), but also by Americans. One essay in Me Talk Prettyrecalls an encounter with two Yankee tourists on the subway, who revile him as a bad-smelling "froggy" and a thief, unaware that he speaks English. It may be the perfect Sedaris moment.
"In most situations, if anyone deserves to suffer, it's me," he says. "I was under the deadline for this book, and I was so happy. By the time they decided I was a pickpocket, I already had four pages."