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Advancing the essayist tradition
David Sedaris limns universal truths
by Mark Anderson

he essayist," wrote E.B. White, "is a self-liberated man, sustained by the belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest."

David Sedaris: shrewd observations and finely honed turns of phrase. ["D. Sedaris," by Mary Bergherr]

White, who in the 1920s began 50-some years as the godfather of essays, might as well be describing the recent writing of David Sedaris. But from there the picture takes a modern-day twist.

The reaction to Sedaris and his latest collection of essays, "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim," is closer to unlikely rock star with hit album than writer with book.

Sedaris, a longtime favorite of the public radio crowd, sells out venues from Portland's Schnitzer to New York's Carnegie Hall. His book-signing sessions draw lines around the block and his work shows up regularly in Esquire and The New Yorker. He wins awards.

But perhaps the oddest thing about the popularity of his essays is that they manage to limn universal truths by virtue of their own peculiarity.

The legions who enjoy his work are somehow relating to Sedaris, his sharp-witted phraseology and the offbeat yarns about his highly irregular kin. In "Repeat After Me," a tale based loosely around sister Lisa's pet parrot, Sedaris stumbles upon the genesis of his writing:

"In my mind, I'm like a friendly junkman, building things from the little pieces of scrap I find here and there, but my family's started to see things differently. Their personal lives are the so-called pieces of scrap I so casually pick up, and they're sick of it. More and more often their stories begin with the line 'You have to swear you will never repeat this.' I always promise, but it's generally understood that my word means nothing."

Just a poor typist: Sedaris illustrates the human condition through the lives of his siblings.

Luckily for Sedaris – and us – his family is filled with colorful characters who seem to thrive on each other's outrageousness and don't really seem to mind the notoriety.

But rather than merely depicting a freak-show mentality, Sedaris uses the everyday lives of his siblings to provide broader insights that illustrate the human condition via shrewd observations and finely honed turns of phrase.

Later in the parrot story, Sedaris reveals: "In order to sleep at night, I have to remove myself from the equation, pretending that the people I love expressly choose to expose themselves. Amy breaks up with a boyfriend and sends out a press release. Paul regularly discusses his bowel movements on daytime talk shows. I'm not the conduit, but just a poor typist stuck in the middle."

The story ends with Sedaris imagining himself teaching the parrot to say, "Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me."

In addition to his family, Sedaris writes shamelessly about his travels, his job history and his boyfriend. Yep, that's correct. Sedaris writes often about Hugh, his longtime companion, as if being gay were no different than being left-handed or having brown hair. Which is, of course, the way things ought to be. Too often the ones most damning of others are those who pass themselves off as something other than what they are.

Strom Thurmond spends a lifetime spewing segregationism before we learn that, as a young man, he fathered a black daughter. Rush Limbaugh rails against drug abusers yet is right there among them. Countless kids have been destroyed in the name of men of the cloth. And so it goes.

Whatever happened to do unto others or live and let live?

Writes Sedaris, regarding his quirky family's inability to understand Tiffany, their even quirkier sister: "I can't seem to fathom that the things important to me are not important to other people as well, and so I come off sounding like a missionary, someone whose job it is to convert rather than listen. 'Yes, your Tiki god is very handsome, but we're here to talk about Jesus.' It's no wonder Tiffany dreads my visits. Even when silent, I seem to broadcast my prissy disapproval, comparing the woman she is with the woman she will never be ..."

A few years before "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim," Sedaris woke me up from the couch. I'd been dozing off during Letterman when a nebbish little man with a funny voice started reading his book from behind a podium right there on TV.

Pretty darn good: the 2001 collection.

I don't remember much about the story but I do remember amusedly thinking: Who the hell is this guy?

Sedaris next came to mind many months later. I was standing in a bookstore and looking to buy a Christmas gift when I remembered Letterman holding up "Me Talk Pretty One Day."

Then, last summer, in the midst of a mundane job where the only solace was lunchtime, I finally borrowed the book. Everyday I'd cross the street to read in the shade by a stream. And on several otherwise mostly rotten days, Sedaris actually had me shaking with laughter in an adirondack chair. I continued through the rest of his books and the summer ended up not being so bad.

I also enjoyed some E.B. White. For all I know, maybe he got the unlikely rock-star treatment in his day, too.

Regardless, in a world that often takes itself too seriously yet remains starved for particular meaning, White and Sedaris share in advancing the best of the essayist tradition from one century to another.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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