Thursday, March 13, 1997

Naked, by David Sedaris

A review of Naked, by David Sedaris

Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
March 13th, 1997

Diary of a Madman

By David Sedaris
Little, Brown, $21.95

Ever since reading David Sedaris’ first book, Barrel Fever, I’ve been searching for the perfect way to describe him. First I was saying he was like a What’s Up, Tiger Lily?-era Woody Allen, but gay and even funnier. But that doesn’t begin to capture the full-bore insanity that is Sedaris. So lately I’ve settled on the only description that even comes close: fucking hilarious.

Sedaris gained national attention by reading his essays on NPR, astonishing listeners with stories of an epically comic and embarrassingly familiar America. His “SantaLand Diaries,” which chronicle his job working as a Macy’s Christmas elf, make the Santa scene from A Christmas Story seem as warm and fuzzy as Miracle on 34th Street. And his essay “Giantess” tells the story of his brief flirtation with writing erotic fiction. For those of us living under a rock, Giantess magazine traffics in stories and pictorials about normal women who somehow grow to more than fifty or sixty feet tall. Hearing Giantess’ editor explain the magazine’s style guide is priceless:

“Do you know what I’m talking about, Dave? I need to hear those clothes splitting apart. Do you think you can do that for me?”

Barrel Fever collected four of Sedaris’ essays and twelve of his short stories (which are all—every last one of them—shit-your-pants funny), but his new book, Naked, is strictly nonfiction—and God help us if it’s all true. Although each chapter is written in a compact essay format, Naked is pretty much Sedaris’ life story, and like so many of the best contemporary memoirs (Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life or Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club), the key word is dysfunction.

The already classic second chapter, “A Plague of Tics” (which Sedaris read on NPR last month), tells the story of the author’s childhood compulsions: counting everything, ritually pressing his nose and elbows to objects, obsessively shaking his head, licking light switches, cars, and lawn ornaments—the kid is just plain weird. But he can’t help it; a voice in his head demands that he obsess:

“What about that television antenna? Is it still set into that perfect V, or has one of your sisters destroyed its integrity? You know, I was just wondering how tightly the lid is screwed onto that mayonnaise jar. Let’s have a look, shall we?”

Sedaris becomes more functional as he gets older, but he doesn’t become any more normal. And what’s amazing is that the crowds he finds himself in make him look like Beaver Cleaver in comparison. The chapter “Dix Hill” finds Sedaris volunteering at the local insane asylum, and in “The Drama Bug” he gets a part in a local production of Hamlet and discovers who the real lunatics are.

Then things begin to get strange. He begins hitchhiking as a teenager, and the chapter “Planet of the Apes” recounts some of the most outrageous road adventures ever recorded. Sedaris has an uncanny ability to recreate people’s speech, and when he (wisely) gives up hitchhiking, he starts taking the bus cross-country—and the linguistic fireworks begin. Anyone who’s ever been on a long bus trip knows how the conversations alternate between amazing and mind-numbing, and Sedaris gets it all down. In “C.O.G.” (which stands for Child of God), he faithfully recreates a one-way conversation with a raving maniac who can only be described as ingeniously obscene:

“I said, ‘motherfucker, you haven’t got the fucking balls God gave a goddamned church mouse. You crawled out of your mama’s tattered old pussy, grabbed hold of her milk-stained titties, and you ain’t never looked back, motherfucker.’ I said, ‘If you don’t want this baby, then I’ll find some son of a bitch who does, someone who don’t look at the world through the slit of his shit-blistered, faggoty-assed, worm-sized dick.’ I said, ‘This baby might be a bastard, but I guaran-fucking-tee you it won’t be half the bastard its daddy is, you fucking bastard, you! You can suck the cream out of my granddaddy’s withered old cum-stained cock before I’ll ever, and I mean ever, let you look into this baby’s wrinkly-assed face, you stupid fucking shithead.’”

The book’s not all this outrageous, of course. Sedaris’ family is insane, but endearingly so, and the parts about his mother’s death are intense and moving. Never lapsing into sentimentality (his mother would laugh at him), Sedaris recounts both the tragedy (in “Ashes”) and the comedy (in “The Women’s Open”) of such an important passing. The latter essay, especially, brings out the utter strangeness of the idea of memorial when Sedaris’ sister watches a special video their mother left her, only to find that their father had recorded a golf tournament over it.

The book ends with the title chapter, a completely incongruous (and, by Sedaris’ standards, appropriate) essay on his week-long stay at a nudist colony. Just imagine: David Sedaris surrounded by a bunch of really weird naked people. The mind reels with possibilities, and Sedaris eclipses them all.

—David Wiley