ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY

NONFICTION BY DAVID SEDARIS

Little, Brown 2000
ISBN: 0-316-77772-2
Ijust got back from a business trip to Orlando, Florida. While there, I attended a conference sponsored by a software vendor for the colleges and universities they serve. It was an interesting trip, full of the kind of ironies that are inevitable when people gather to talk business, particularly the business of higher education, in Walt Disney’s imaginary world. There were university administrators from across America and beyond, all on a quest for that one missing piece that would drive the gremlins from their systems and their lives. And there were the techies, like me, who never harbored fantasies about finding that missing piece but were known to believe in gremlins anyway.
         There were hotels with outdoor stairways sheltered by giant football helmets and sports-themed wallpaper in the rooms. There were birds whose songs were not familiar and franchised night clubs whose facades were. And there was Mickey. And Mickey was everywhere.
         “By the time this thing is over, I’m going to be really sick of Disney tunes,” I said to Jill, a colleague and friend.
         She laughed. But in the end, I was right.
         Disney tunes. College administrators. Computer geeks. Palm readers. Adults dressed up as Mickey, Pluto, Cinderella and Snow White. And consultants by the planeload. It was all a heady mix.
        And into that mix was thrown my reading for the flight to Orlando, Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. It seemed appropriate somehow. After spending a few hours with Sedaris and his particular view of the world, contradictions seemed to make sense. By the time I set foot on Disney soil, I expected the world to be full of them. It was a small world, after all. I was ready.
         David Sedaris came to prominence a few years ago with his commentaries for This American Life on National Public Radio. His Santaland Diaries have become an annual Christmas tradition at NPR. Through these spots, and his books Holidays on Ice, Barrel Fever and Naked, he has won over many listeners and readers with his wit, intelligence and satirical take on human nature.
         Although Me Talk Pretty One Day is a collection of essays, when taken as a whole, it can serve as a sort of autobiography. The book begins with stories from the author’s childhood, continues through his college years, his time spent teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago and his experiences while living in New York and Paris. Along the way, there is a wide and varied cast of characters and a range of funny situations. And all along the way, there is great irony and unsparing satire, both of society and of himself.
         In “Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities,” a young David Sedaris is forced by his father, an avid jazz buff, to take guitar lessons from a midget named Mr. Mancini.
         “Although I had regularly petitioned for a brand-name vacuum cleaner,” writes Mr. Sedaris, “I’d never said anything about wanting a guitar.”
         It is interesting that the instrument of the author’s torment and his father’s pride is the dream instrument of many young people and a thorn in the side of many parents. But beyond that, the relationship between the young Mr. Sedaris and his guitar teacher is a fascinating one. In looking back on the event, the author views his guitar teacher with a very odd mixture of disdain and empathy. The disdain is to be expected, being the natural result of a child forced to learn a musical instrument.
        But, in retrospect, Mr. Sedaris also understands that Mr. Mancini is an outsider because of his size. Mr. Sedaris also views himself as an outsider and something of a rebel. In so doing, he finds common ground with this man.
         In “Twelve Moments in the Life of an Artist,” Mr. Sedaris looks back on his years as an art student. He eventually turns to performance art and his memories of that time are superb satires of the notion of the artist’s life as art itself.
         “The Great Leap Forward” covers the author’s post-college salad days in New York. He finds contrasts in New York between the privileged and the poor and between dreams and reality. And he views the rich in New York with a sense of self-deprecating irony.
         “I’d watch a white-haired man slipping out of his back brace and ask myself what he had done to deserve such a privileged life,” Mr. Sedaris writes. “Had I been able to swap places with him, I would have done so immediately.”
         Many of the essays describe Mr. Sedaris’ experiences while living in France. Much of the humor in these essays comes from the expected clash of cultures that an American in France might face. But, as the title of the collection suggests, much of the humor comes from language and the strangeness of learning a new language.
         In “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” Mr. Sedaris recalls the French classes he attended with students from all over the world. David Sedaris finds particular delight in translating the fractured French spoken by him and others into equally fractured English, making for an interesting reading experience.
         But Me Talk Pretty One Day is more than an interesting reading experience. Mr. Sedaris has a way of making fun of society without placing himself above others. We can believe him, and laugh with him, because some of his keenist satire is directed at himself. Some of the pieces here become funnier on a second reading, which is a very rare thing.
         But I only read them once on the flight back from Orlando. Mr. Sedaris’ journey ended about the same time as mine. I closed his book just as we were beginning our landing approach to O’Hare.
         “Look!” said Jill, sitting next to me, “There’s somebody out on the wing!”
         “It’s…a gremlin!” I responded, trying my best to sound like William Shatner in that great old Twilight Zone episode.
         Nobody listened to me. I wasn’t surprised. Nobody listened to Shatner either. But it didn’t matter. I had just travelled a wondrous circuit of strange truths, courtesy of Walt Disney, the universities of America and David Sedaris. I may not have emerged from it a better person, but I was happier one. And the gremlins never got us.