by Alex Watkins (Staff Writer)
American humorist David Sedaris’ own personal brand of self-deprecating humor arguably shines most brightly in his autobiographical collection of stories, Me Talk Pretty One Day. The book, which earned him the title “Humorist of the Year” from Time Magazine, as well as the 2001 Thurber Prize for American Humor, showcases Sedaris’ knack for finding both the comedy and the tragedy in everyday life, often within the same moment.
One of the standout sections of the book is Sedaris’ tale of his childhood experience with a speech therapist named Miss Chrissy Samson, who is intent on curing his lisp. He quickly grows to resent her, and speculates that “Had her name included no s’s she probably would have bypassed a career in therapy and devoted herself to yanking out healthy molars or performing unwanted clitoridectomies on the schoolgirls of Africa. Such was her personality.”
He attempts to outwit her by expanding his vocabulary, aided by a pocket thesaurus “which provided [him] with s-free alternatives to just about everything.” The therapist inevitably gets the last laugh, feigning a meltdown over his resistance to her therapy in order to trick him into saying “Sorry.”
He also recounts the music lessons forced onto him and his siblings by his father, who harbored dreams of forming a family jazz band. Sedaris ends up being given private guitar lessons by a misogynistic, homophobic and ill-tempered “midget,” and is asked not to come back when the teacher eventually discovers he is a homosexual.
Sedaris’ uncanny ability to write stories that are both cautionary and outright hilarious is demonstrated as he recounts his college years, in which he simultaneously discovers methamphetamine and conceptual art. He is drawn into the medium by his persistent belief that he is an artistic genius deserving of fame, despite the fact that after years of study he has been unable to develop any technical skills. The addiction fuels his art, because, as Sedaris recounts, “Speed eliminates all doubt. Am I smart enough? Will people like me? Do I really look all right in this plastic jumpsuit? These questions are for insecure potheads. A speed enthusiast knows that everything he says or does is brilliant.”
The tales presented by Sedaris were often so outrageous that I couldn’t help wondering if his life was genuinely as strange as described, or if he was simply endowed with an unusual gift for observing the harsh and sometimes illogical aspect of human behavior. In interviews, he expresses irritation at the implication that his stories are sometimes exaggerated for effect, and maintains that they were drawn entirely from experience; in fact, he declares that a good part of his essays are plucked directly from the diaries he has been writing for over thirty years.
On the whole, Sedaris professes to get enjoyment out of the “humiliating asshole things” that he does because he believes that it will eventually make for a good story. Not only that, he is grateful for the awkward and sometimes terrible experiences he has had throughout his life, going so far as to state: “I wish my school had corporal punishment. I could write a story about being beaten with a key chain. Now I just wish all those people had been worse. I would have had more to write about.”