America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
Me Talk Pretty One Day
Review by Timothy Hurley
When I retired after thirty-five years of medical practice my friends said I had to have a plan. They said I’d be dead in a month if I had no plan. I didn’t work thirty-five years to die in a month. So I decided to take a humor writing class. The teacher assigned a book report and my inner student came forth Lazarus-like. Some kids were like, “Do we hafta?” or “I’m goin’ to the lake this weekend. I don’t wanna.” But me, I couldn’t wait. I hadn’t done a book report since I graduated from Neolithic High. I was ready to go. I had a plan.
I picked David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day. I know that sounds like I was biting off more than a retired guy could chew, but it wasn’t as difficult for me as you might think. True, there are no pictures in the book, and it is 272 pages long. But since I had a week I only had to read 38.85 pages a day. More reading than a Tweet, true, but doable, I thought, if I knuckled under, DVR’d Downton Abbey and skipped The Colbert Report.
My teacher said, David Sedaris is the acknowledged Master of Self-deprecation Humor. The MSH. He writes stories about his tortured childhood and insightful essays about life as an adult gay man in France. I was envious. I write. I had a tortured childhood. Why he does not sign his books David Sedaris, MSH, I do not know. I would. He’s earned it.
I read it and rolled on the rug. I hooted until my sides hurt and pleaded, Enough, Mr. Sedaris, enough. My ribs can only take so much—thirty eight point eighty-five pages per day to be exact. Then I had to stop. There are only so many hours in the day. I was willing to give up The Colbert Report but not reruns of the original Star Trek .
I finished the book on schedule and sat on the couch to reflect on the writing techniques that led to Mr. Sedaris’ phenomenal success. I concluded that it was hopeless for me to try to write self-deprecating essays. To challenge the acknowledged MSH on his own turf would be insane. It would be setting an unrealistic goal for myself. So I decided to write about my own tortured childhood in self-effacing essays. With hard work I might become, if not the Master, then the Middle Manager of Self-effacement. I sat on the couch, eyes closed and a dreamy smile playing across my lips. I saw myself one day in the future being introduced to polite applause on stage at Carnegie Hall. In my fantasy I step to the podium, take a sip from a plastic bottle of water, and read from my new book: Timmie Takes a Tumble.
Even if I were foolish enough to try, there are obstacles to my writing as David Sedaris writes. He is a third or fourth child of six siblings, a birth order that lends itself to self-deprecation. I am a first-out-of-the-womb, overachieving, Me-Generation Boomer, a handicap that makes even self-effacement a huge challenge. Compensating for that, my school counselor pointed out many years ago, I am blessed with profound lethargy and an endearing lack of self-awareness. When God closes a door, he opens a window, the counselor said. I don’t know what that means, but it might mean I should self-efface.
Editors would agree, I’m certain, that there is some cross-over between self-deprecation and self-effacement. That’s what The Oxford Thesaurus says anyway, so I studied Mr. Sedaris’ stories in Me Talk Pretty One Day. I took notes in my black and white speckled Composition notebook, the one I hadn’t filled up at Neolithic High. Mr. Sedaris’ essays are arranged in two sections: The first a collection of stories from his childhood in North Carolina, and the second, or Deux (That’s French for two), essays from his stay in France with his partner Hugh.
Although David Sedaris’ education as a writer seems to have been limited to on-the-job training in his story “The Learning Curve”, in “Genetic Engineering” he expertly executes a plural-plural-singular rule-of-three “…thumb-size actors…Fickle gnomes…air conditioner…” My mouth was agape and my tongue dripped envy. In “See You Again Yesterday” Mr. Sedaris astonished me with a very demanding, unexpected, juxtaposition superimposed on a rule of three: “…words…that people actually use…’Lie down,’ ‘Shut up,’ and ‘Who shit…’” After reading that I put a cold cloth on my forehead and rested a while. Mr. Sedaris ends the piece with his trademark self-deprecation: “…where a person can comfortably smoke while making a spectacular ass of himself…” I wasn’t sure what he was doing when he made an ass of himself but it brought nostalgic tears to my eyes when I recalled the times in college that I attempted something naked, made a spectacular ass of myself, and wanted a smoke afterward.
We are kindred spirits, Mr. Sedaris and I. With diligence, courage, and old- fashioned American determination, as David says in Me Talk Pretty One Day, “I will eventually realize my goal…whispering…‘Has anything else been inserted into your anus?’”
Other works by David Sedaris are: Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. Buy one. If he ever takes the future Middle Manager of Self-effacement out to dinner, he’s going to need the money. I won’t self-efface at dinner.
3 September 2012