I used to go to work across the street from a lovely park in midtown Manhattan. On sunny afternoons, without fail, a small troop of hapless interns with HBO brooches pinned to their polo shirts would fan out over the grounds, fling themselves into the paths of innocent pedestrians and bubble, "Hi! Do you like comedy?" I never actually saw anybody take a swing at one of them, but they were cruising for it. Obviously some audience-gaffing specialist had determined that nobody would say no, as if the real question were "Do you like being happy?" I like to think that if one of the saps from HBO had accosted David Sedaris -- the only professional comic, if you can call him that, who consistently makes me happy -- he might have replied, slowly and with wide eyes, "Do you like tragedy?"
"Me Talk Pretty One Day," Sedaris' new collection of essays, fits loosely into the tradition pioneered by those literary wags of an earlier era, like S.J. Perelman and Robert Benchley, who spun their random observations into epically loopy fantasias. Though Sedaris does contribute to the New Yorker, he is not, like his famed forebears, an urbane cocktail-party curmudgeon. He, too, examines the ridiculousness of those around him, but he does it with affectionate curiosity and not a jot of shame about his own mischievous weirdness; he comes across as equal parts Perelman and Pee-wee Herman. In a time when bestselling "humorous" books by the likes of Tim Allen and Paul Reiser leave one's sides intact, Sedaris is a prime candidate for funniest writer alive.
You might have thought he had milked his past dry in his previous collections, "Barrel Fever" and "Naked." But until now he somehow neglected to mention his stint as a college-dropout speed-freak performance artist:
I cashed in a savings bond left to me by my grandmother and used the money to buy what I hoped would be enough speed to get me through the month. It was gone in ten days, and with it went my ability to do anything but roll on the floor and cry. It would have made for a decent piece, but I couldn't think about that at the time.
Once in a long while he eyes a familiar target (nouvelle cuisine, rube tourists in New York), but few readers are likely to experience pangs of recognition when reading his portrait of his younger brother, who calls himself the Rooster, speaks exclusively in ghetto profanity and has an inexplicably close bond with his mild-mannered father:
When my father complained about his aching feet, the Rooster set down his two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew and removed a fistful of prime rib from his mouth, saying, "Bitch, you need to have them ugly-ass bunions shaved down is what you need to do. But you can't do shit about it tonight, so lighten up, motherfucker."
All eyes went to my father, who chuckled, saying only, "Well, I guess you have a point."
The lunacy of language is Sedaris' chief delight, and he re-creates dialogue with an expert ear. In one essay, his father, an engineer, explains a complex mathematical equation for the edification of some Carolina fishermen at the beach: "'When you say pie,' one man asked, 'do you mean a real live pie, or one of those pie shapes they put on the news sometimes to show how much of your money goes to taxes?'"
Whenever the author's sister Amy, the Sedaris family's other professional wiseacre, appears, she shanghais the book. Exiting a crowded el train in Chicago, she yells back to her brother, still jammed on board, "So long, David. Good luck beating that rape charge." Obviously the humor thing is subjective, but at this point I discovered that an explosion of mirth can propel a half-sucked Life Saver 10 feet.
The book's second half is devoted to the author's recent move to France, where his boyfriend owns an 18th century house in a remote village. Sedaris' quixotic tilts at the language barrier interest him far more than bashing the French -- refreshingly, he has nothing against them. During the course of one warlike language class, his fellow students try to explain the concept of Easter, in beginning French, to a baffled Muslim classmate:
The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. "It is," said one, "a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and ... oh, shit." She faltered and her fellow countryman came to her aid.
"He call his self Jesus and then he be die one day on two ... morsels of ... lumber."
Sedaris tries with dogged perversity to boost his scant vocabulary on his own, making himself hundreds of flash cards to learn the words for "slum," "facial swelling," "death penalty," "slaughterhouse," "sea monster" and so on. You'll find few winks here to suggest that the author is deliberately exaggerating his eccentricities -- the corkscrew derangement of his worldview is ruthlessly consistent.
At one point Sedaris acquires an instructional tape of French phrases for doctors: "Come to Paris," he writes, "and you will find me, headphones plugged into my external audio meatus, walking the quays and whispering, 'Has anything else been inserted into your anus? Has anything else been inserted into your anus?'" I'm ready to go. This small, strange, hilarious spectacle would be worth the transatlantic airfare.