In James Thurber’s humor classic “A Ride With Olympy,” the mild-mannered New Yorker writer recounts the time he let a gardener named Olympy take him for a drive in the south of France. Having been told that the charming Olympy is a White Russian with “a petit mystère about him,” Thurber quickly ascertains, once the car gets rolling, the not-so-petit essence of this mystère: Olympy is a very, very bad driver. Though Thurber frantically tries to inject order and safety into the proceedings, he miscommunicates with his driver in more than one language, and the two men rocket down the street in reverse, graze an elderly English couple and crash into a stone wall. “Olympy’s face was so stricken when he looked at me,” writes Thurber, “that I felt I had to cheer him up. ‘Il fait beau,’ I announced, which is to say that the weather is fine. It was all I could think of.”
Like Thurber’s story, much of David Sedaris’ winning new collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day, celebrates its author’s ability to mock himself. Far from recoiling from their foolishness, Thurber and Sedaris embrace it. That such a theme should, in both cases, be explored in descriptions of the authors’ time spent living abroad, is only fitting; as Sedaris writes, “What I found appealing in life abroad was the inevitable sense of helplessness it would inspire.”
Not surprisingly, however, the eccentric Sedaris is almost as helpless in Part One of his book, which takes place on these shores, as he is in Part Deux, wherein he moves with his boyfriend to France. In “Go Carolina,” the book’s first story, Sedaris recounts how, as a child, he was forced by his school to study with a speech therapist, an event that serves only to make Sedaris very self-conscious about his voice as he avoids all words that contain the letter s: “There was the lisp, of course, but more troubling was my voice itself, with its excitable tone and high, girlish pitch.” In “Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities,” the collection’s next story, Sedaris’ father presents David with a guitar, hoping that the boy and his sisters will start a jazz combo. “Surely he had confused me with someone else,” Sedaris writes. “Although I had regularly petitioned for a name-brand vacuum cleaner, I’d never said anything about wanting a guitar.” When Sedaris demonstrates for his teacher what he would rather do than learn guitar — impersonate Billie Holiday singing advertising jingles — the teacher becomes wildly uncomfortable. “‘Hey, guy,’ he says, holding up his hands as if trying to stop an advancing vehicle, ‘you can hold it right there. I’m not into that scene.’”
Sedaris catalogs his foibles in a way that, while wildly funny, is also moving. We feel for the child Sedaris even as we laugh with him, and if our sympathy, in the two new stories, is rooted in the fact that a boy is being ostracized for being gay, the overall effect is not at all one of politically correct cant.
In the book’s second half, Sedaris explains that his living in France was something of an accident. “I wound up in Normandy,” Sedaris writes, “the same way my mother wound up in North Carolina: you meet a guy, relinquish a tiny bit of control, and the next thing you know, you’re eating a different part of the pig.” We find Sedaris taking the steps to try to overcome his helplessness — he signs up for French lessons with a disdainful teacher and tries to explain the concept of the Easter Bunny to his baffled classmates.
When asked if his stories are true, Sedaris invariably responds that they are “true enough.” And he takes all the leeway the phrase affords him. In the “true enough” world, he can get away with having a waiter offer up “raw Atlantic swordfish served in a dark chocolate gravy and garnished with fresh mint.” He can have his unforgiving French teacher tell him, “Every day spent with you is like having a cesarean section.” He can write of an American on the Metro who, mistaking Sedaris for an odiferous Frenchman, exclaims to his companion, “Peeeeew, can you smell that? That is pure French, baby . . . This little froggy is ripe.”
But in the end, Sedaris gets at essential truths even as he exaggerates. The book’s last story is about Sedaris’ father, who is a hoarder of food — he hides bananas and cherry tomatoes, among other items, in his bathroom cabinet and his tool shed, and later eats them.
We could understand why someone might be frugal with six children to support. We hoped our father might ease up and learn to treat himself once we all left home, but, if anything, he’s only gotten worse. Nothing will convince him that his fortunes might not suddenly reverse, reducing him to a diet of fingernail clippings or soups made from fallen leaves and seasoned with flashlight batteries. The market will collapse or the crops will fail. Invading armies will go door-to-door, taking even our condiments, yet my father will tough it out.
A man — like his son — with a taste for the unusual.
Henry Alford is the author of, most recently, Big Kiss: One Actor’s Desperate Attempt To Claw His Way to the Top, published by Villard.
ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY | By DAVID SEDARIS Published by LITTLE, BROWN and COMPANY | 272 pages | $23 hardcover ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY | By DAVID SEDARIS Published by LITTLE, BROWN and COMPANY | 272 pages | $23 hardcover