Him Still Talk Pretty

Posted May 24, 2018 5:10 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — David Sedaris was taking questions from the audience after his reading at the Kennedy Center last month, when suddenly the evening took an alarming turn.

“How’s Hugh?” someone asked, referring to Hugh Hamrick, Sedaris’ boyfriend. Hugh plays the pivotal role of in-house normal person in Sedaris’ skewed alternative universe. (“I call him Congressman Prude,” Sedaris said.)

But just then Sedaris paused, looked stricken. His nerdy bravado slipped away and his voice quavered. “We’re not together any more,” he said. An audible gasp of dismay swept through the auditorium, packed with more than 2,000 people, as the author — so unshockable, so seemingly unsentimental, so darkly humorous, yet so constant in his domestic arrangements — began to lose it, right in front of us.

“I’m sorry,” Sedaris went on, “it’s all ...” He could not continue.

By now people in the audience were practically weeping, and Sedaris was for real. Until he wasn’t. (We should have seen it coming.)

He flashed a sunny grin. “Just kidding!” he said. “He’s fine.”

Sedaris has been messing with our heads for more than 25 years, since he began reading his diary entries on National Public Radio. His breakthrough segment, “Adventures in SantaLand,” contained the now-famous account of how, while working a desperation job as a Christmas elf in a department store, Sedaris told a fractious child that if he didn’t behave, Santa Claus would come and steal everything in his house, including the towels and the electricity.

His first book was an essay collection called “Barrel Fever.” Like its author, with his deceptively benign and innocuous appearance, the book had the stealth force of a jalapeño disguised as a bell pepper.

Now he is about to publish his latest book, “Calypso,” which reflects the usual Sedaris preoccupations: the bonds of siblings, the trials and comforts of domesticity, the softenings and ravagements of time, the general confusion of the world, his family’s extremely weird sense of humor.

Any family that names its seaside cottage “the Sea Section” and seriously considers “The Amniotic Shack” as an alternative is not exactly normal. But “Calypso” reveals the later-day Sedaris to be more ruminative, more serious, and a little less inclined to play everything for laughs. He is 61 now, and life has crept up on him.

His quick, charismatic and acerbically clever late mother is revealed in the essay “Why Aren’t You Laughing?” to have been an angry alcoholic who abused and embarrassed her family even as they refused to acknowledge what was going on. The essay “Now We Are Five” poignantly discusses, in Sedaris’ familiarly discursive way, the suicide of his troubled sister, Tiffany.

But the vicissitudes of his daily life are not so different from the vicissitudes of your life and mine, even if his eye for detail and way of processing the world around him are wholly his own. And one of his gifts as a writer is his ability to slip so easily between the profound and the mundane.

“In a lot of the stories nothing huge happens,” Sedaris said in an interview. It was breakfast in New York, a few days earlier. “I spent a week at the beach with my family, but it wasn’t like anybody got into a car accident or someone broke into the house and stole things. But it still felt like a story to me. You know, how life feels like a story.”

Sedaris is an atypical author, and not just because of his singular worldview or because his books sell so well or because he spends so much of his free time striding through the English countryside, where he and Hugh now live, picking up trash (“I don’t know what it is about England; people are such slobs,” he said). He also has an unusually close relationship with his readers.

Many writers have mixed feelings about author tours, which all too often, especially these days, feature perfunctory encounters with anemic crowds in half-empty bookstores. Not Sedaris. He loves audiences, audiences love him, and his readings attract hundreds and even thousands of people.

Even when there is no new work to promote, he spends much of his time on extended tours in the United States and abroad. The current tour goes to places like Toronto; Minneapolis; Houston; Albuquerque, New Mexico; San Francisco; Missoula, Montana, and many more; heads to Ireland and Britain; and returns to the United States in August. After he appears, he signs books and chats to people late into the night, even if that means all night long. (His record is 10 1/2 hours, in Chicago.)

And so Sedaris remained at a table that night in the Kennedy Center until nearly 1 a.m. The readers snaked in a line far down the vestibule. Sedaris talked to every one of them. He was in no rush. His conversational gambits covered the sort of topics (abortion, religion, sexuality, disability) that people are advised to avoid in potentially non-safe spaces.

For someone else it would have seemed like a high-wire act; for Sedaris it was business as usual.

Sedaris: “Did you go to church on Easter?”

Reader: “No.”

Sedaris: “What is wrong with you?”

Along came a young woman who, like most people in line, had her first name (Chelsea) written on a card that she handed to Sedaris, for book-signing purposes.

“How old do you think you are going to be when you die?” Sedaris asked.

You would think people might be put off, but they weren’t. Not when Sedaris wrote “Christ died for you” in one woman’s book (“I teach high school students,” she said, “nothing offends me”); or when in another’s book he drew a picture of a three-legged bear with blood spewing from its stump because, he said, it had stepped on a land mine; or when he wrote “you will not be alone forever” in the book of a fan who said she was single. Nor did anyone mind when he asked a (nonpregnant) woman if she might have an abortion this summer and then advised her to “do it while you still can, because you may not be able to have one in the future”; or when he wrote “you’re using that cane as a crutch” to a reader with a limp; or when he said, “What happened to your mother — is she dead?” to a man named Richard, who wanted a book signed for his father.

“She is to him,” Richard said.

Sedaris drew a little person and gravestone with “RIP” written on it. “Here is your father looking at the ashes of his failed marriage,” he explained.

Someone named Christine said she worked in her firm’s HR department.

“You’re absolutely lovely,” Sedaris said, sketching out a key in her book. “Here’s a key to a whorehouse where you’re going to get a much better job.”

Released from conversational convention, readers confided in him: about their relationships, about their co-workers, about their pet peeves, about their sexual arrangements, about strange events that had befallen them.

“This is the most exciting thing that has happened to me all day,” one reader said, after a discussion that touched on acrimony and syphilis, among other things. “Thank you for bringing so much humor into this world.”

Because Sedaris writes so matter-of-factly about Hugh, his non-broken-up-with boyfriend, he draws a fair contingent of fans who are in same-sex relationships, or who might be.

“You make a fine couple,” Sedaris said to a pair of women. Not the way he meant, as it turned out: They were mother and daughter.

Sedaris was not fazed by this piece of information. “Your mother looks like a predatory older lesbian,” he said, to the younger one, who did not seem to mind at all.

Along came a person named Katie, all tattoos and piercings and brightly dyed streaks of hair, barely out of her teens and shyly holding a book. She is a typical member of the Sedaris fan club, meaning that there is no typical member.

Sedaris and Hamrick’s enduring relationship, she said, has provided her with comfort and courage at a time of turmoil.

“It’s very nice to meet you because your books really helped me come out in a homophobic world,” she said. She was nervous and talking fast.

“They’re the first books I’ve read where you’re just a person, and your boyfriend is just another person in your life.”

Sedaris got that glint in his eye that for some reason puts people at their ease. “Come out as what?” he asked.

“I don’t know, bi- or pansexual,” Katie said. “I just say that I like people regardless of their gender.”

“We’re alike!” Sedaris said in his mild and kindly way. “Except that I hate people regardless of their gender.”

Don’t be fooled by that, either.

Event Information:

David Sedaris’ Book Tour

The Strand in Manhattan on June 2 and Books Are Magic in Brooklyn on June 3. For full tour information: davidsedarisbooks.com.