Those who’ve followed Sedaris’s career from the NPR broadcast of SantaLand Diaries (in which he recounts the winter he worked as a Christmas elf at Macy’s department store) to the release of his latest collection, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: a Modest Bestiary, know the truth: nothing much has changed. Sedaris is still mining the same subjects—family tensions and cultural misunderstandings, social misfits and miscreants, the comedy and the tragedy of the many little ways we hurt one another. The truth is, when Sedaris is telling the story, these subjects never tire.
On Friday night at the Arlington, Sedaris was on top form, wearing a bow tie in order to show off the “massive super buttons” on his Japanese shirt and taunting his sign language translator with a unexpected audio recording of rapid-fire German conversation before settling in to an evening of readings.
The absurdities of cross-cultural communication remain an endless source of comedy for Sedaris, who splits his time between Japan, France, and the United States, not to mention the international travel required for book tours. “On a recent flight from Tokyo to Beijing, I remembered that I needed to learn Mandarin,” he quips, going on to explain the vagaries of the Pimsleur language learning system. In order to keep the conversation afloat with a chatty Chinese cab driver, he lies, “I have one big boy and two little girls,” lamenting the fact that Pimsleur does not teach him to say, “I am a middle-aged homosexual who makes do with a nephew I rarely see.”
As always in Sedaris’s best work, there’s a thin line between comedy and tragedy. He’s certainly walking that tightrope in his piece about his childhood summers at the Raleigh Country Club, where his father laments his mediocre performance on the swim team, turning his attention to another boy who shows more athletic promise. It’s a classic rejection story, and Sedaris mines it for meaning as well as laughs. “He talked like he was a talent scout for Poseidon or something,” he writes of his father’s officious interest in the other boy, later recounting too his father’s words for his own son: “You know what you are? A big, fat zero.” It’s painful stuff, and Sedaris tiptoes along the edge of cynicism before reaching a deep, resounding truth: “I’ll never know if my father did this to hurt me or to spur me on, but in both cases he was wildly successful.”
Of course, Sedaris wouldn’t be Sedaris without his moments of almost unadulterated cruelty. From a diary entry, he read of his wrath at a slow-moving couple in front of him in line at a coffee bar, referring to the wife as “a towering, triple-chinned pile of a woman.” Yet even here, he rounded out the reflection with a vision of himself as seen through the eyes of a pierced, dread-locked barista: some stupid, middle-aged gay dude just as hateful as the fat lady.
As the evening came to a close, Sedaris took questions and made his traditional book recommendation—not a satirical choice, this time, but a heartfelt endorsement of Tobias Wolff’s novella The Barracks Thief. “I’d buy this before I’d buy anything I’ve written,” Sedaris said plainly. “It’s a much better book.” As for why he hasn’t written a screenplay: “I like a movie with a gun in it. And I don’t have any good ideas with guns.”