"Me Talk Pretty One Day" - By David Sedaris, Little Brown, June 2000 $14.95
Billy Crystal, when lecturing his group of aspiring mystery writers/community college students in Throw Mama from the Train, described exactly what's gone wrong with American writers. He said, and no doubt most of America's writers agree, "A writer writes, always." And that's exactly the problem. While every literary culture that's ever produced anything worthwhile would exchange "writes" for "suffers", suffering's just got no place among the American literati.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the Berkshires, that Disneyland for America's intelligensia, where I spent Memorial Day. It's filled with organic family farms, colonial houses, red barns and refined scenic views of rolling hills that make up the educated class's Pirates of the Caribbean, Thunder Mountain and Teacups. The movie theaters are art-houses, the supermarkets boutiques, the hotels inns and the galleries everywhere. And just 2 hours from New York and Boston! It's no surprise that generations of acclaimed writers, from Edith Wharton to Phillip Roth, have flocked there.
This aversion to discomfort infects just about everything successful American authors write, and David Sedaris' work is no exception. Sedaris is the closest thing America's got to a literary rock star, pulling in 25 grand per reading, making regular appearances on Letterman, and commanding prominent displays at B & N. Recently the press has taken to slobbering all over him and his latest book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. If the States had the equivalent to the Soviet Writer's Union, he'd be the chairman. But why is he so loved? Since the new hardcover would have pushed my bags over the weight limit, I settled for Me Talk Pretty One Day, his older best-selling book of autobiographical essays, to find out what all the hype's about.
And while I can't say that I particularly minded any of the essays, it boggles the mind that this guy's so popular, let alone showered with fawning nouns like "caustic" and "scathing". Cute, dippy or pastel-toned, maybe, but caustic? I can't imagine who or what They think this guy's attacking. It seems that Americans really, truly don't know what viciousness is.
Most of the stories are based on a gay man's recollections of various petty conflicts while growing up and then his experience learning French as an adult, fer godsake! Everything he writes is soft, with each essay ending with a simpering moral concluding it was all for the best. No villains, no hatred. Even the essay "Twelve Moments in the Life of an Artist," where he describes his life as a tweaked-out performance artist, doesn't really ruffle any feathers. If anything, it's just another depressing coming-of-age story, in which he ultimately quits the drugs, realizes his father was right and goes mainstream. Apparently the reader's supposed to believe that writers, just like frat-boys cum stock brokers, sow their wild oats and then settle down to a comfortable existence free of suffering. And thanks to his renunciation of all unhealthy habits in the end, his readership lets him get away with talking about drug use. It's good ol' Christian forgiveness.
"Twelve Moments..." begins with young Sedaris wanting to be an artist even though he's got no talent. He reduces the desire to sibling rivalry and his desire to look at naked athletes all day and coyly describes his lack of god-given talent. But something more brooding is clearly driving him, and somewhere in the fifth moment, Sedaris write, "I discovered both crystal methamphetamine and conceptual art." Waytago, David!