Tuesday, June 17, 2008

David Sedaris, by Jess Lourey

Am I the last person on the planet to discover the pleasures of reading David Sedaris? That'd be about right. I just started using banana clips and eating sun-dried tomatoes. Stumbling across Terence Trent D'Arby and the Flowbee Haircutting System can't be far behind.

It was Wendy, the avatar of my local Barnes & Noble, who slipped me the copy of Sedaris' latest--When You Are Engulfed in Flames. I took it because I love books engulfed almost as much as I like free stuff, but I didn't have high hopes. I avoid over-hyped media on principle. In fact, it would have slipped to the bottom of my TBR pile if I hadn't forgot to unpack it before the next leg of my book tour. It traveled along hidden under my makeup/jewelry/toiletries kit, which smells like the Tropical Sunrise deodorant that melted in there when I accidentally left the whole pile on a table in the sun about a year ago.

So last week I found myself in the basement room of a Moorhead, Minnesota, Motel 8, $55.91 poorer but with a functional remote, one of those teeny, screw-off cap bottles of red wine, and nothing on TV. I cracked open the Sedaris, crabby and reluctant. Soon, though, I was mainlining the book. Halfway through it, I realized I was laughing out loud and imagining myself having a cocktail with the author (he'd like me; he'd really like me). So I've paced myself. I've got about 50 pages to go, but I picked up two more Sedaris' books at the Fargo Barnes & Noble to draw out the relationship.

Sedaris is wry, insightful, and writes about the important stuff (love, pretending to like your neighbors, and smoking), and you can learn that just by reading the back cover of any of his books. What you have to read to believe is just how funny he is. People always ask me if comedy is hard to write. It isn't, at least adequate humor isn't. Pick up any number of brightly-covered mysteries, romances, or chick lit books and you'll see some solid slapstick and deus ex machina with a laugh track. However, I find that adequate comedy writing is like adequate dialogue: it makes you very aware of what you, as a reader, are supposed to do.

laughter Liza walked into the room, and both boyfriends were sitting there, their arms crossed. It was going to be one of those kind of days. A liquid lunch day. (Reader: titter!)

"Stop being so mean to me!" She wailed angrily. (reader: tense up!)

See? No subtlety. Sedaris, however, strikes me as a master of stealth humor. He draws out the joke as he fleshes out his characters with tiny but telling details, and when he comes at you with the punch line, you were so engrossed in the story that you didn't see it coming. Sigh. Dreamy good stuff. Puts me in the mood for writing September Mourn and taking the humor to a whole new level.

Which brings me to my question: when you are writing, do you read in the genre that you are writing, or are you worried it will infect your imagination? Or do you not read at all, preferring instead to grunt and scratch yourself as you peck away? Or, even better, what was the last book you read that was worth the hype (or not)?


Mark Combes said...

What I read greatly influences what I write. But I wouldn't say I always read in the crime/mystery/thriller genre, but whatever I'm reading, I find myself parroting to some degree when I sit down to write.

Jess Lourey said...

I agree--it's important to read when writing because it'll season your broth, so to speak.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I'm always reading, and mostly mysteries. However, when in the heavy intense meat of my latest manuscript, I try to avoid books that might be similar to mine, lest someone else's voice taints my own. But when I’m doing final edits, or in that small window between projects, I like to cram in as many of the fun books as I can. Right now I'm in the final weeks of a deadline, so I’m reading “L.A. Outlaws” by T. Jefferson Parker and “Bangers” by Gary Phillips. Neither of which are remotely like my work.

Nina Wright said...

Jess, I love Sedaris, too. I started out hearing him read his own stuff on Public Radio. Now I hear his voice reading it in my head when I read it. Proof in another way of what we already know: his voice is unique, which is what sets him apart from writers of "adequate" humor.

G.M. Malliet said...

Sedaris is a hoot. I think I first ran across him in the New Yorker. I haven't read this latest of his but if he writes some more about his life in France, I'm there. I think he lives in Normandy, which complicates his life nicely. I think he likes that.

Jess Lourey said...

He does have a unique voice, doesn't he, Nina?

Sue Ann, I've heard the "tainting" concern before, but I can't get my head around what it would look like. Wouldn't it be the author's writing with another layer?

G.M., he does write about Paris in his latest, but not Normandy, though the one of his I'm reading now does have some scenes in Normandy.

jbstanley said...

I'm not a short story or essay reader, but I'll leave my fiction comfort zone for Sedaris any day. I'm going to listen to his latest on audio. And I'm like Sue Ann. When I've at pivotal points in my own book, I steer clear of mysteries. Fortunately, as you know, there are some incredible books out there to serve as distractions and often open my eyes wide to the power of really good writing.