February 1997

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Sedaris gets naked

by Robert David Sullivan

[David David Sedaris suffers fools graciously. "That's a bong," he says helpfully as I examine a plastic honey bear with a tube jammed through its stomach.

Cool, I say to myself. One of National Public Radio's most popular personalities is explaining the fundamentals of drug use to a dimwitted visitor.

Sedaris owes much of his success to his voice, which millions of NPR listeners have heard reading from "Santaland Diaries" (about his adventures as a Christmas elf at Macy's) and other autobiographical essays. On the radio, Sedaris's speaking style has a conspiratorial air, as if he were calling a friend in the middle of the night and doesn't want to be overheard by anyone else. When he wants to emphasize a word, he stretches it out with a North Carolina drawl that is otherwise unobtrusive. The sense of Sedaris as an old acquaintance is underscored by the occasional reference to his being gay. He never feels the need to announce this fact; if you're a new listener, you'll figure it out.

For many fans, Sedaris's radio spots are too infrequent, and they find themselves reading his 1994 book of short stories, Barrel Fever, over and over. Happily, a new supply of his intimate wit is forthcoming. Naked, due out next month, is a modern picaresque, a collection of vignettes from Sedaris's childhood and young-adult life, ending with a recent vacation at a nudist trailer park. It's funny and occasionally disturbing, but never self-indulgent. Sedaris carefully avoids sloppiness or excess in his writing -- appropriate for someone who says he's merely on a leave of absence from his full-time job as an apartment cleaner.

The 40-year-old Sedaris is short, but nothing else about him is elflike today. He's unshaven and dressed in shades of gray and black. His compact New York SoHo apartment will never be mistaken for Santa's Village; nor does it resemble a typical A-lister's abode.

For one thing, there are dead animals everywhere, including a stuffed squirrel atop a stereo speaker, two examples of "some kind of fruit bat" affixed to the wall, a lamp with a base made out of four deer hooves, and a condensed turkey (just the head welded to a foot). The showstopper is a set of four little Boston terriers, each only a few inches tall, peering out in mild alarm from two glass cases, the kind one might use to display souvenir shot glasses from Las Vegas.

"I love things made out of animals," Sedaris says, holding a knife with a hoof for a handle. "It's just so funny to think of someone saying, `I need a letter opener. I guess I'll have to kill a deer.'

"I got a lot of good things for Christmas," he continues, pointing toward a feathery object on a perch near the ceiling. "Like this baby ostrich. My cat doesn't mind the puppies or any of the rest of it, but he hates this ostrich. Twice I found it on the floor with teeth marks on it."

I suddenly notice the large white cat, apparently sleeping, sprawled out on a chair. Dennis was one of the 42 cats the actress Sandy Dennis left behind when she died a couple of years ago, and Sedaris renamed him after his former owner. I don't ask what will happen to the cat's body when his time comes.

Sedaris shares his fourth-floor walk-up with his boyfriend of seven years, Hugh Hamrick, who paints backdrops for Broadway shows. They met when Sedaris relocated from Chicago.

"When I moved to New York, I thought, `God, everybody will be taken.' And I don't go to bars, and I didn't want to. . . ." Sedaris trails off, perhaps wary of causing some kind of offense. "I thought, `Maybe everyone will favor handcuffs,' or `Maybe everyone will have their hair colored like a dandelion.' Then Hugh was just so normal. I loved the way he had his house set up, and that there was always something baking in the oven."

Their apartment is bright and airy. Windows are almost always open, a precondition for Sedaris's smoking. (There are two neat stacks of Kool cigarette packages on a shelf near the honey-bear bong.) The kitchen has a 1950s-white-sink-and-refrigerator look, with a solid wooden table near a barroom-style bathroom door (whose thin sign reads GENTLEMEN). There's a horseshoe above the front door, which adds to the rustic feel, and the apartment has several lamps made of popsicle sticks that Sedaris wants to get rid of because they're so difficult to clean. The place is spotless, of course.

The funniest lines from Sedaris's work can make him seem misanthropic.

In Naked, he says of his paternal grandmother, "It was difficult to imagine her raising a child of her own, and chilling to realize that she had." On his mother's kin: "Health, be it mental or physical, had never been her family's strong suit. The Leonard family coat of arms pictured a bottle of scotch and a tumor." On a guy who befriends Sedaris during his lonely stint at an apple-packing plant in Oregon: "I'd tried to straighten him out, but there's only so much you can do for a person who thinks Auschwitz is a brand of beer."

In "Santaland Diaries," a mother orders elf Sedaris to tell her bratty son that he risks getting coal in his stocking. "I said that Santa no longer traffics in coal," he reports. Instead, he told the boy, "if you're bad, he comes to your house and steals things."

But David Sedaris is not a crank. I've rarely seen anyone as happy as he was at the Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge, a couple of years ago, on a tour for Barrel Fever. First he read a tale about visiting the bathroom during a dinner party and discovering that the previous occupant had left an enormous turd, one too big to flush. The next story was about abducted children and cannibalism. The program was a nice gift to his fans, since we were getting the stuff that he wasn't allowed to use on the radio (and didn't put in the book). And it was funny. The biggest laughs from the audience were rewarded by Sedaris briefly looking up from his papers to giggle back at us.

Reading aloud is the one kind of public performance that Sedaris is comfortable with, and he doesn't feel that he's there to test the patience of his fans. "I'll go to a reading," he says, "and someone will read an interior monologue for 45 minutes, and I'll be thinking, `Do you know what it's like to listen to this?' You don't want to hear people describe their dreams or analyzing relationships. I don't, anyway. I want something to happen. I want to know what the characters' needs are, and I want to see them either fulfilled or not."

Fortunately for us, his characters' needs are not so easy to meet. Sedaris is now working on his first novel, which he describes this way: "It's about a woman who's in her late 50s, who's paralyzed from the waist down and works as a locksmith. Wouldn't that be the worst job if you were paralyzed? You'd have to go up five flights of stairs, and if you left a tool outside in your van, it would just be so hard."

Naturally, the woman is already paralyzed when she decides that locksmithing makes perfect sense for her career. Many of Sedaris's strongest characters seem driven to make things more complicated for themselves. Maybe it all goes back to his compulsive habits as a boy -- licking light switches, rolling his eyes into the back of his head -- detailed in the chapter of Naked called "A Plague of Tics." Sedaris writes:

It was a short distance from the school to our rented house, no more than six hundred and thirty-seven steps, and on a good day I could make the trip in an hour, pausing every few feet to tongue a mailbox or touch whichever single leaf or blade of grass demanded my attention.

The protagonists in Barrel Fever engage in similarly bizarre behavior that somehow seems inevitable. One young man plans to kidnap his sister's baby (which looks like a "doll made out of raw hamburger meat"); a father saves money by performing home surgery on his daughter (using yarn for stitches); and a teenage suicide victim plots to start a riot at her own funeral.

"All the characters in that book were really angry about something, and I just like that energy," Sedaris says. "If someone's angry, they have a story to tell, and it's going to get out."

If other humorists offer the shock of recognition, Sedaris provides the shock of showing us what we could become. He brings to mind every mother's advice about not making grotesque faces lest one of them become permanent. His characters can't stop thinking about goals that are impossible or simply absurd -- winning an Oscar, getting rich by selling jade clocks carved in the shape of Oregon.

Sedaris is often inspired by his own experiences, but he keeps an eye on inexplicable behavior in pop culture, sampling talk shows, soap operas, and all kinds of movies. "I also love those true-crime books," he says. "One of my favorites is about this guy who murdered a bunch of children. They were going to put him in the electric chair. He thought, `Well, I'll fool them,' and he stuck a needle up his ass. So the chair shorted out."

Sedaris takes a drag on his cigarette. "And they just hung him." He laughs contentedly. "He of all people should know that there are a million ways to kill people. . . . I like that. Pride in yourself on being such a thinker, and then pay the price for it later on."

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