David Sedaris Shocks and Astounds

By John Vollinger

David Sedaris popped out from the giant, maroon curtains draping the Lincoln Center Stage, and if you looked closely, you could see an energy as vibrant as the bright, red flower ornament on his lapel.

Apropos of absolutely nothing—besides, perhaps, of being David Sedaris—he dove into a description of his relentless wish to find what, exactly, people from foreign lands curse at each other on the roads and highways. The audience was treated to a bevy of colorful images to hurl at other drivers, ranging from “build a house from your kidney stones” to “I will drag my testicles across your mother’s memorial cake” and everything in between (whatever could possibly be in between those two poles). One after another, Sedaris hurled his newly learned insults at the crowd, and each one hit with such a mixture of vulgarity and peculiarity that one felt exhausted at the end; partly from the strength of the insults, and partly from laughter.

Sedaris then moved into some new stories from an upcoming book of his: Calypso. The first centered largely on his experience of watching his father’s declining state, as the accompaniment of age. This story was a stage for which his true prowess as a story-teller was able to shine. There was such humor and life in the voice of his father, and then there was the slow, measured pace of his voice in response, littered with the realizations of his father’s decline. Sedaris was able to beautifully inject the extreme anxiety that he must have felt, wandering through his father’s house, hoping to find him alive, calling out “Dad?” in a tone wracked with nerves, and cutting away to a memory before we get a response.

A large part of what made the reading so mesmerizing to watch was the nature of his transitions. After the poignant end of the story about his father, he was able to comment on the somber nature of the story with such an easy levity, it gave the listener the feeling that the stories were to be seen as just observances of life; though some may be sad, they should be welcomed with as much acceptance as any other event in life. This may not be Sedaris’ outlook on life, necessarily, but it is an effective way to tell stories, as it leaves the audience to hear the humor and the melancholy of life, all in the same breath.

His next story typified this even further. Sedaris was able to weave a story which began with a man soiling himself on an airplane, and moved into beautiful descriptions of sending his partner letters when he is away on his reading tours, and then back into terrifying descriptions of almost having a release of his bowels in front of 2,000 people (owing to a nasty stomach bug). Sedaris moved the audience through each of these feelings with ease, without it ever feeling jarring. It felt like the natural oscillation of life, from the beautiful to the mundane, disgusting to the common.

This was what made the night special. Sedaris went on to read some hilarious excerpts from another upcoming book: Carnival of Snackery (a follow-up to his acclaimed Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002), and answered some questions from the audience with open grace, but it was the flowing nature of his transitions to so many emotional junctures that gave the night such pleasant cohesion.

Jeffrey Jenkins, one of Sedaris’ friends and collaborators, perhaps said it best. He said Sedaris is an “archaeologist of the present”; he digs into what is happening now and is able to preserve it in a pristine condition for us all to enjoy. Enjoy it we did.

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