AN URGENT MESSAGE to all those fanatically voyeuristic viewers of Survivor and MTV's The Real World: Stop watching that monkey-see, monkey-do trash and pick up a goddamn book already. Namely, pick up David Sedaris' fabulously twisted Me Talk Pretty One Day, which takes so many irresistible snapshots of ugly Americans digging and pawing through their banal daily routines, it makes Survivor look like a weekend trip to Kmart.
Me Talk Pretty One Day
by David Sedaris (Little Brown, $22.95)
Sedaris, he of the gleeful slice-of-strife NPR show This American Life, starts his fourth essay collection by targeting the victim he knows best: himself. A two-time art school dropout and former speed addict (among other disreputable occupations), Sedaris is allowed to take aim at his family, boyfriends, and coworkers simply because he doesn't spare his own pathetic past.
When he writes about his gangsta rap-lovin' younger brother Paul talking to his conservative father about his aching feet—"Bitch, you need to have them ugly-ass bunions shaved down is what you need to do . . . so lighten up, motherfucker," you think, "No way in hell is this true. Nobody talks to their family this way."
Oh, yes, they do—that's just the tip of Sedaris' crude but adorable clan, which is chronicled in the first half of Me Talk Pretty. There's also sister Amy (a comic genius in her own right, best known for her portrayal of the degenerate fortysomething high school student on Comedy Central's Strangers With Candy), a top-notch prankster who comes home for Christmas wearing a fat suit under her clothes in order to horrify her obesity-hating dad.
The best part? Sedaris swears these gut-clenching essays about his North Carolina upbringing are true.
BUT BACK TO the author's story, which is always, always the stuff TV shows should dare to include but don't. Sedaris traces his childhood lisp, which forced him into speech therapy sessions with a heartless college grad, to his adult move to Paris, where he endures an equally fierce French instructor. "I hate you," she hisses at Sedaris during one class. And then, "Every day spent with you is like having a cesarean section."
Though Sedaris doesn't flinch at insults like these, those quiet spaces in between the writer's biting cynicism and the reader's laughter are painfully magnetic. When Sedaris discusses his drug addiction there's an awkward pause, a moment of not knowing whether he's being serious or not, or whether proper etiquette dictates the cessation of guffawing.
In "Twelve Moments in the Life of the Artist," he explains, "Speed's breathtaking high is followed by a crushing, suicidal depression. You're forced to pay tenfold for all the fun you thought you were having. . . . I might have thrown myself out the window, but I lived on the first floor and didn't have the energy to climb to the roof."
But before it gets any more grim, Sedaris wraps things up with his trademark wit, describing how he once "vacuumed" his apartment with a straw up his nose, hoping to catch a few stray meth grains he'd dropped on the floor; "dead skin cells, Comet residue, and pulverized cat litter" go up his nostrils, and it's then you wonder how this brilliant but beastly man ever made it to the New York Times best-seller list.
LET'S JUST BE thankful he did. His cult followers can probably recite backward and forward the tragic "Santaland Diaries," an old essay detailing a hideous stint as a Macy's elf during Christmastime that boosted Sedaris into the spotlight. Sedaris has an effective way of undermining his accomplishments, like a gorgeous runway model who has no idea why people are always drooling over her. "Who, me?" he seems to say, frolicking from one self-deprecating tale to another.
The only bummer about Me Talk Pretty is that Sedaris has to go and fall in love in the book's latter half. He meets Hugh, a country music fan who likes to spend his weekends making pies and crying over George Jones. It's not that Sedaris goes all googly-eyed over Hugh and ruins the sinister tone with puppy love, it's just that they choose to move to France, where Sedaris is limited to making fun of his fellow Americans (who, as we all know, embarrass themselves greatly in Europe) and his awful command of the French language. There are hilarious bits, but something about Sedaris' savvy approach to Manhattan life falters when he's a fish out of water.
Still, Me Talk Pretty's gruff and ready commentaries on shit jobs, dot-coms, and house hunting are by far a better glimpse of humanity than any reality-based TV show. This is American life, indeed.