By Nicole Brodsky
DAVID SEDARIS' father once ate a piece of his own hat. One of his sisters was "tanorexic," obsessed with getting tan. Another sister, at age 12, called her father at work, convinced him she was one of her mother's married friends, and propositioned him for sex. His younger brother, Paul, refers to himself as "the rooster."
As if his eccentric family members weren't enough fodder for a series of humorous autobiographical essays, Sedaris manages to exact most of his laughs from the more mundane aspects of life in Me Talk Pretty One Day (Little, Brown & Co.; $22.95).
The new collection--Sedaris' fourth book--charts the course of the author's life from his childhood in Raleigh, N.C., to his stint at art school to his current residence in France. And though the two main sections, "One" and "Deux," separate his life in America from his life abroad, the 27 essays are more cobbled together than chronologically joined, with certain truths acting as connective tissue for this body of work.
One of these truths, the powerful influence of teachers on their students' lives, reverberates throughout Me Talk Pretty One Day. In "Go Carolina," the opening essay, we meet Miss Chrissy Sampson (lots of "s" sounds), the speech therapist appointed to correct a fifth-grade Sedaris' lisp.
He never relinquishes the lisp (you can still catch it on National Public Radio's This American Life, to which Sedaris is a regular contributor), but that year he stopped using "s" words. In the presence of his midget guitar teacher, this pattern of avoidance continues when he learns to avoid words like little .
His coping skills as a student follow him to France, where he decides to enroll in an adult French class. An essay filled with violent verbs, "Me Talk Pretty One Day" sketches out the horrors of a language-learning class and an evil teacher: "[She] killed some time accusing" and "She crouched low for her attack."
The instructor's fear-inspiring lectures eventually lead Sedaris to another bout of avoidance. Paralyzed by his now self-conscious French, he doesn't answer the phone, pretends to be deaf, and refers to all French nouns in the plural so he won't embarrass himself by using the wrong gender.
"A masculine kilo of feminine tomatoes presents a sexual problem easily solved by asking for two kilos of tomatoes," he explains. Only 180 pages earlier, Sedaris was saying "a river or two" to avoid the "s" in the plural "rivers."
The irony of this collection about one person's struggle with language is that the writing throughout is tight. Apparently avoidance breeds precision. The title page alone is a work of comedic genius: "I'll Eat What He's Wearing" delineates the series of events leading up to his father eating a hat; "The Youth in Asia" catalogs the death (by euthanasia) of family pets, coupled with Sedaris' memory of Fatty and Skinny, a Japanese movie about two Asian youths; "Me Talk Pretty One Day" enacts the translation of his syntactically juvenile French into English.
The syntactic humor found throughout "Deux," the second section, is both tender and hilarious. Sedaris translates the conversation outside of his French class for our amusement: "Sometimes me cry alone at night." "That be common for I, also, but be more strong, you. Much work and someday you talk pretty. People start love you soon. Maybe tomorrow, okay."
I read Me Talk Pretty One Day on the airplane that was taking me to the funeral of a young friend who died of brain cancer. I sensed I shouldn't, but I laughed out loud for three hours, and not only at the dinner-party scene where Sedaris attempts to flush someone else's large, unruly turd to avoid embarrassment. I laughed at his drug addiction and his failure to become a successful artist, teacher, and singer.
At a recent reading in San Francisco, a woman introduced Sedaris to his audience by explaining that Me Talk Pretty One Day is what we want. I think it's what we need, especially those of us who have a tendency to take life too seriously.
From the July 6-12, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.