David Sedaris is one of those authors whose books I consume rabidly, like a starving dog who happens upon a piece of bacon. As soon as his books hit the shelves, I'm there to carry them to the cash register and add them to my personal library. So when I heard he was scheduled to appear at Vanderbilt University, I snatched up a ticket as quickly as I could. Apparently other people had the same idea; tickets to see the author sold out the first day they went on sale. Nashville hasn't seen such literary enthusiasm since the last Harry Potter book came out.
If you don't know anything about David Sedaris, you should. This former housecleaner and Macy's Christmas elf now lives in Europe with his longtime life partner, Hugh, whose personage shows up often in Sedaris' work. Sedaris writes regularly for Esquire and The New Yorker and has published multiple best-selling books. He's made a livingand a good one, at thatwriting short, comedic stories about himself and his family that leave other would-be writers slapping their foreheads and saying to themselves, "Of course! A three-page story about my senile grandmother! Why didn't I think of that?" He combines simple subjects about which everyone can relatethe pains of an awkward childhood, embarrassing relatives, imperfect relationshipswith a cynical attitude and a caustic wit that make each story more hilarious than the last.
At Vanderbilt, David Sedaris walked on stage, a small man, very thin, in a pink shirt and brown jacket. He started by reading "Old Faithful," a new story that will soon appear in The New Yorker. The story catalogues Sedaris' comfortably stagnant relationship with his boyfriend and culminates when Hugh offers to lance a boil on the small of Sedaris' back. Sedaris finished the story, then went on to explain the nuances of his boil, describing the stench and drained puss in great detail. It was gross, but the audience laughed too hard to be disgusted.
Sedaris also read the story "Baby Einstein" from his most recent book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, in which his redneck brother has a baby girl. He is the foul-mouthed black sheep of the family who once consoled his father in the aftermath of a tornado with the line, " Bitch, I'm here to tell you that it's going to be all right. We'll get through this shit, motherfucker, you just wait." Sedaris doesn't affect voices when he reads, but even he couldn't resist reciting his brother's profanity-laden dialogue with a high-pitched Southern twang.
After the stories, the author put away his typed pages and talked freely with the audience. "Whenever I go on tour," he said, "I promote my own books, of course, but I also like to promote one other book. A book I've recently read." He held up The Columnist by Jeffery Frank. Sedaris outlined the novel's good qualities and then added that he had also recently read a novel by Ann Patchett. "And then I learned that she lives in Nashville," he said, "So that's very cool. You should all read Ann Patchett. I'm going to read everything she's written." Before he could continue, a voice in the audience came forward with "Thank you."
"Ann Patchett is here?" Sedaris turned so pink that his embarrassment was evident all the way from the second-floor balcony. He fumbled through a few sentences, and the audience laughed as the renowned author became star struck.
During the question-and-answer period, the discussion of politics inevitably arose, and Sedaris likened a George W. Bush bumper sticker to a sign that says, "I eat babies." A student asked about the author's infamous fear of computers, to which Sedaris replied that, although he now owns a laptop, he still has never seen the Internet. Later, he told a story about how, as an avid cigarette smoker, he used to give preferential treatment to smokers when signing books. When he appeared at UCLA, students protested, claiming he was discriminating against non-smokers on public property. "I didn't understand," Sedaris said, still aghast at the excessive political correctness, "I thought, who are you and why are you here?" Then he gave away a free pack of Camel cigarettes.
Vanderbilt University was one of over 30 appearances Sedaris will make on his 2004 promotional tour, but the author seemed as fresh as if it were a one-time event. He struck up conversations with everyone who queued up to have their books signed after the lecture, which, although kind, meant the line moved at a nearly undetectable pace.
I waited over an hour-and-a-half to shake the hand and get an autograph of the writer whose books I've read over and over again, sometimes out loud to disinterested third parties. I tend to get nervous around celebrities or people I admire, but David Sedaris smiled at me and chatted like we were equals. And maybe we are. Only, his lead in book sales is considerable.