If you believe most of what he writes (and reads), then when the fire alarm went off in his hotel one day, David Sedaris was really hoping for an actual fire and the chance to rescue a fellow guest because the incident would give him some fresh, interesting memoirs.
When you write for a living the way Sedaris does, the brain is always on-call for new material. And when you write the way he does, most situations are ripe with material, even if the fire is minor and your only act of heroism is showing someone the way out the door.
Wednesday night, Sedaris spent about 90 minutes reading stories, essays and diary entries to a crowd of about 1,300 at the Midland theater, and the hotel fire/non-rescue was among those stories. So was the fictitious "Health Care Freedoms and Why I Want My Country Back," told from the perspective of a clueless, ultra-conservative mother on her way to a rally in Washington (she ends up in Seattle) who is taking advice from her gay son. He talks her into wearing a shirt that says "Big Dyke" because it signifies someone "holding back the advancing tide of socialism."
Much of his material exaggerates people's contradictions and ironies; some of it gives voice to their most selfish and callous attitudes. Like the long fictitious e-mail from one sister to another that involved a drunken-driving accident, paraplegia and husband-stealing. It was as politically incorrect as anything he read all night; yet it had his crowd laughing (while shaking their heads) at one-liners about people in wheelchairs. There is also humor in indulging in the forbidden, which is something Sedaris exploits expertly.
The centerpiece of his reading was "A Preponderance of Evidence," his recollections of jury duty in the Sedaris family. He wove three tales into one as he described his experience in an assault trial, his mother's in a murder trial and his sister Amy's in a rape trial. (In her story, she ends up on the floor of the jury room, wearing the victim's panties over her jeans.)
There were plenty of his trademark details: One of his fellow-jurists was a one-armed man who, accordingly, was allowed to raise his left hand instead of his right during his swearing-in. And there was more insensitivity to both victim and accused. He gave some slack to the defendant in his trial: "He couldn't have stabbed a better person." But couldn't get by the enormous cross he wore around his neck during testimony: "It's one you'd reach for if you wanted to crucify a hamster."
Beyond the detailed character sketches, the story visited deeper themes about race and the assumption of guilt and the fine line between ignorant bias and bigotry, like when he recalled his mother saying, "I didn't know black people were afraid of praying mantises." When we laugh at her and at his sister's insensitivities --- she thinks the facts and forensic evidence makes a trial dry and boring -- we are laughing at parts of ourselves.
Towards the end, Sedaris read recent entries from his diary. None was more irreverent than the piece on Jesus and how he is portrayed: as a tall, dark, handsome man with washboard-abs. There's a niche to be filled, he said: Comb-over Jesus, who is short, partly bald, hairy all over and so fat the Romans (actually he first said "Germans") had to build a stronger cross because he broke the first one.
He closed by reading some hilarious excerpts from a book he is recommending, the Onion's "Our Dumb World," then he took questions from the audience. Someone asked him to do his Billie Holiday impression but Sedaris declined: "I discovered there's a difference between the way you sound in your head and the way it really sounds."
True, but that's also the very reason everyone was in the room with him Wednesday night: to hear, in his voice, what goes on inside his head.
| Timothy Finn, The Star