Though he’s not likely to actually be confused for an evil baby or a hillbilly, in the twenty-seven autobiographical essays that comprise Me Talk Pretty One Day David Sedaris is wickedly funny and refreshingly down to earth.
The down to earth part is a particularly impressive feat considering his family: five siblings, each with their own personality quirk (a hard-core rap loving brother who nicknames himself ‘The Rooster’ and a ‘tanorexic’ among them); a wise-cracking mother who helps the Easter Bunny “branch out” by filling their Easter baskets with cartons of cigarettes; and an engineer father manically obsessed with jazz and hoarding food. A deep well to draw from, no doubt.
A few of the more notable essays include: “The Learning Curve” (a brutally honest, highly amusing self-assessment of his stint as a woefully unqualified teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago), “You Can’t Kill The Rooster” (recounting the exploits of his hilariously profane bantamweight younger brother), and “Picka Pocketoni” (actually a rather poignant essay in which Sedaris, an American living in France, makes some frank observations about American tourists).
The clear standouts of the book though are unquestionably a trio that deal with the author’s move to France and subsequent enrollment in a French language class. The first two, “See You Again Yesterday” and the book’s title essay “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” recount Sedaris’s early time in France during which he speaks first like “an evil baby,” only able to use simple nouns and verbs. Eventually he graduates to “hillbilly” level communication, in which the concepts he can express are a little more advanced, even if the subject verb agreement isn’t. (Asking a butcher about cow brains: “Is thems the thoughts of cows?”)
The one that will have you doubled over with laughter, however, is “Jesus Shaves,” in which Sedaris and his fellow students try to explain to a Muslim member of the class – using only their butchered French – what Easter is: “A party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus.” “He make the good things and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today.” “Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb. One, too, may eat of the chocolate.” Things only go downhill from there once the concept of a rabbit delivering chocolate gets injected into the mix.
Like Augusten Burroughs (Running With Scissors), Sedaris mines his odd family and unique upbringing for much of his material. Unlike with Burroughs, however, there’s never that sense of creepiness that made me feel like I needed to take a shower after reading some parts of Running With Scissors. Sedaris’s writing is also reminiscent of David Foster Wallace (Consider the Lobster), though Sedaris’s sarcasm is always presented with tongue planted firmly in cheek, never rising to the level of vitriol that occasionally taints Wallace’s work.
Though there are a couple of duds in the bunch, overall Me Talk Pretty One Day is a collection of wonderfully humorous essays that will have you laughing out loud – read in public at your own risk.
Me Talk Pretty One Day is available from Back Bay Books (ISBN: 978-0316776967).