14 Apr 2009: The Peace Center Greenville, SC
Stories don’t happen to me. When I go to the convenience store, I don’t get involved in crazy exchanges with pyromaniac cashiers. When I fly, I don’t witness flight attendants leading in-flight sing-alongs. When I buy a chair at a yard sale, it doesn’t turn out to be haunted. Those kinds of things happen to my sister, who got all of the random adventure genes in the family.
OK, so that’s not entirely true. I did almost witness a police dog demonstration go bad because excited children wouldn’t stop popping balloons, and I have a history with yellow jackets that should make people give me a wide berth whenever we’re outside. So yes, things happen to me, but not often. Or if they do, they don’t strike me as story-worthy.
Not so with someone like David Sedaris, who apparently can’t get out of bed without feeling like he’s in some quirky, low-key Wonderland. Or so he makes it seem, anyway.
As evidenced by his penchant for reading from his daily diaries at shows like the one this night at the Peace Center, Sedaris is a disciplined recorder of his days (he’s reportedly kept a daily diary since 1977), and a skilled crazy-quilter of memories and adventures. True, there’s been some recent pushback from reviewers (especially in the wake of 2008’s When You Are Engulfed in Flames) for his humorist tendency to exaggerate and to craft a single story from several disconnected events. But that resistance always felt symptomatic of a “we’ve gushed about this guy for too long, we need to say something bad” attitude than anything else (although fallout from James Frey’s discredited memoir A Million Little Pieces deserves some credit as well). Granted, Sedaris has settled into a comfortable life in France, but he still has a lifetime of memories and observations to work from, not to mention his always-fertile position as an expatriate. So things still happen to Sedaris, but they’ve acquired the gentle glow of domesticity, and when he looks back, it’s often with a comfortable nostalgic hum.
On stage, Sedaris is a riotous presence. You wouldn’t think so to look at him, shielded by a lectern, dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt, hands clutching a sheaf of papers. But the words on those pages, coupled with his sardonic delivery, usually result in laughter throughout the theatre. He’s also complementing his famous fussbudget persona with a curmudgeonly quality that lends real bite to essays like the one he used to begin this night, about living in France during the 2008 presidential elections. Constantly peppered with “who do you think will win” questions, Sedaris is usually greeted with a pitying shake of the head when he voices his belief that Obama will take the White House. This leads to a discussion of the validity of America’s image as a racist country, some cathartic snipes at conservatives, and some bemused bafflement at the way some recent French elections around him turned out.
But Sedaris’ real strength lies in what This American Life‘s Ira Glass, speaking on this same stage about a month ago, called Sedaris’ ability to bring all of this sly humor home with emotional impact. His story about a book tour through Australia mainly centers on his chance to feed some raw meat to a Kookaburra outside of a restaurant. But then Sedaris turned the story into a meditation on his childhood and his father, making it into more than just a quirky road trip story.
Sedaris obviously traffics in a kind of storytelling alchemy that others have a hard time figuring out, even though he always spends a part of each show reading from his diary—which in itself points to a discipline many of us aspiring writers find daunting—or from unfinished manuscripts (here, a two-pager about the passive aggressive revenge that flight attendants exact on passengers). His question-and-answer sessions are always peppered with questions about his craft, and Sedaris does his best to answer them. But how do you really explain a fortunate blend of an interesting life, an ability to stitch remnants together, and the voice to make it all work on both the printed page and on stage?
As I sat there, listening to Sedaris, and thinking all of these things, two women beside me hissed at each other throughout the night. I never could tell what they were arguing about, but it was getting pretty heated. My natural inclination would have been to shush them, but I was too intrigued by exchanges like:
Lady #1: Are you sure you’ll be OK without a drink?
Lady #2: Not if you keep asking me that, damn it.
I’ll be honest, in my story-starved state I kind of wanted it to escalate a little bit, so I could write some Sedaris-inspired piece about fights at David Sedaris shows and how they remind me of fights with my sister, or of fights on the playground, or about the need for a good stiff drink to get through certain social engagements. But then I realized that probably the worst place to have a story happen to you is at a David Sedaris performance. After all, you can bet the whole thing would go into that all-seeing diary of his. Not to mention the story-hoard of 1,000 people around you, all trying to figure out what makes Sedaris’ voodoo work so well.