Not too surprising: David Sedaris packed the Walton Arts Center Tuesday night with a crowd of eager fans. The best-selling author of Me Talk Pretty One Day and Naked took the stage for over an hour, opening with the eponymous story from his new book Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (or Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Wicked Bestiary as it’s titled in the UK).
A slight man in his mid-fifties, Sedaris stood unassumingly behind the podium next to a spray of gay flowers, delivering his material with the timing of a stand-up comedian and the intimacy of a coffee shop reading.
Sedaris is a master storyteller. His tales are pulled from the stuff of his (but certainly not everyone’s) everyday life. It isn’t easy to pin his writing on a particular genre, either; it spans travel writing, memoir, and, most prominently, humorous social critique. The next bit was a piece about his travels through China, awkwardly focused on scatological discoveries of the country’s approach to public sanitation, expectoration and Chinese cuisine.
One story, particularly hard to swallow, was the account of a Dutch friend who looked back on her troubled relationship and realized that it was destined to fail ever since the day she was riding on the back of her lover’s bicycle and a bird defecated in her mouth as she was laughing. His humor isn’t for everyone.
Sedaris is, however, a phenomenon. Coming into prominence in the early 90’s, he was discovered by radio host Ira Glass reading from his diary in a Chicago club (he still ends his readings with cleaned-up diary entries, often to hilarious effect). He became a frequent contributor to Glass’ NPR show, This American Life and has been busy ever since, famous for his national book tours, spots on David Letterman, giving autobiographical accounts of everything from his family to learning French, and even briefly moving to Japan in order to quit smoking.
As a satirist, Sedaris is considered nonpareil, his humor, incisive and pointed. When asked by an audience member during the Q&A portion of the show if there was anything he considered off-limits for his work, Sedaris replied that he has never given any details about his own sex life or any moment sitting on a toilet (the brunt of the China story was set outside). Generally, he doesn’t consider himself an original political thinker, either, and said that he thinks he manages to convey only the illusion of revealing the deeply personal in his own life. His longest story of the evening focused on his childhood on the swim team at a Raleigh country club and the jealousy he felt for his father’s extravagant appreciation for the boy who was the fastest swimmer (not him). The story felt personal, but Sedaris claimed that none of the moments he commits to the page really bare his soul. Perhaps, the mark of a true satirist.
The German title for his new book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, Sedaris told the audience, is Life is Not a Petting Zoo, apparently a German idiom of the Life isn’t easy ilk. He noted that he would have entitled the original volume just that if he could do it over again, and it seems those sentiments carry the overall gist of his work. Life’s hard but everyday strife is, well, funny.
A friend who accompanied me to the show wanted to have a book signed afterward. We waited in a line of ardent fans, several toting four or five volumes to be signed, for over two hours. When my friend finally got to the signing table, Sedaris offered him a pickle and fingerling potato, signed his book with a sketched holly leaf and closed the cover. “I never write what people ask me to,” Sedaris replied to my friend, who had painstakingly written a note about their fictional Parisian tryst for which he had taken up a Facebook survey to compose. He spoke with each person in line, asking them what they did for a living, if they knew of any good jokes. It was a generous evening all the way around and an obvious success for the WAC.
Fayetteville was but an early stop on an international tour. He will be giving readings across the country through September, in Canada, the UK and Amsterdam. You can checkout his other appearances on the Steven Barclay Agency’s website.
David Sedaris is truly an American personality worth getting to know.
Tobias writes theatre reviews for the Fayetteville Flyer. He is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts through the Arkansas Programs in Creative Writing and Translation and teaches at the University of Arkansas. He is also an associate company member with The Artist’s Laboratory Theatre. For more of Tobias’ contributions, see his author page.