Ifirst came across David Sedaris' name in a collection of "alternative new queer writing" edited by novelist Dennis Cooper (he of the Jeffrey Daumer-like heroes and highly-theorized fascination with rimming). Sedaris' entry in this in-your-face collection was called "Glenn's Homophobia Newsletter Vol. 3, No. 2," a lampoon of self-righteous activism and P.C. paranoia. (Glenn indulges in frequent digressions about cruel ex-boyfriends and screams intolerance when a cornerstore cashier resists an inelegant, intrusive seduction). It was funny, a little off-color but not quite as deliberately smellyas some of the other offerings.
The next time I heard anything about Sedaris was during an internship at a Boston public radio station. Sedaris is a commentator on National Public Radio, and apparently had stopped by the Boston carrier to say hi during a tour to promote this book. The station's managing editor had received a letter from Sedaris which she'd posted over her desk. This missive, a pseudo-business letter thanking the manager fro her hospitality, was crumpled and dirty and Sedaris had scrawled an apology in pencil below the text: "I wrote this months ago but just found it in my drawer yesterday. Waaaa!" The letter described New York City in the summer as a trash dump with boutiques and was signed "Love, David Sedaris." Even though the letter wasn't for me, I was charmed. I resolved to read his book.
Barrel Fever is as chock full of art and wisdom as I'd hoped. It's also proof that Sedaris can get as smelly as the best of them; several of the stories include grim details of home amputations, athletic phone sex and baby murder.
So maybe a few of these stories feel a little slight for inclusion in a $20 book. But you'll read these stories at least twice, since you'll want to recite them to anyone who'll listen. The slightly obsessive narrators of these stories make them particularly suited to out-loud readings (most of them were probably created for National Public Radio). Sedaris has a masterful ear for popular culture talk--arm-chair psychology, tabloid gossip, etc. He is particularly sensitive to that time-frame known in contemporary chit-chat as "right now"--as in "I'm really interested in underwater birthing right now," or "Right now I'm trying a lot of herbal teas," or "I 'm concentrating on me right now, just me!" "Right now" captures the magic sound of a person trying to get his shit together, and Sedaris knows the sound intimately. A lot of these stories occur "right now," in that place where our hopes for a publicly acceptable "lifestyle" start to sound a little desperate.
The shorter stores (such as "My Manuscript," a tale narrated by a vicious teenage boy who screams at his housekeeper and has sex with men in the bathroom at JC Penny's in order to research his work-in-progress, and "the Last You'll Hear From Me," a suicide note written by a girl who tries to disparage her exboyfriend's sexual equipment from beyond the grave--"It's the size of my little finger...I'm not wanting the nail, just the finger!") made me think America should resuscitate the great tradition of reading pamphlets, so that every citizen could benefit from Sedaris' uncanny insight into our times. Those weird, brilliant little vignettes should be sold separately at 25 cents a pop at check-out counters and newsstands, to be read on coffee bread, or the subway, in the dentist's office. Like confetti, Sedaris' bizarre creations would litter the mean streets of our cities. Several of these stories would be at least as popular as was common Sense in its day, and we would all be better for it.
The more straightforward stories here are even better than the ones with unreliable, usually psychotic narrators. The longer stories in this volume, especially "We Get Along" and the title story, are sensitive and wicked observations of family life (and death). "Jamboree" is an absolute beauty. The story's young narrator--who lives in his sister's garage and takes care of her hideous baby which looks like it's fashioned from ground beef--is sketched without any of the sentimentality that usually characterizes such portraits. If it were a novel and if Sedaris were British, it would be short-listed fro the Booker Prize.
The jewel in the crown that is this collection is "SantaLand Diaries," the closing essay. The piece recounts Sedaris' stint working as an elf at Macy's SantaLand. From his weeks wandering the candy cane-lined mazes of SantaLand and pretending to cavort with mechanical penguins, Sedaris has defracted a chilling portrait of that dark region of the New York shopper's soul which emerges at Christmas. His eye is merciless and this memoir reads like stand-up Dante. Sedaris has seen what most of us choose not to, and we should be grateful for his act of witness. He can say with Whitman, "I was the man, I suffered, I was there."