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BOOK REVIEW / SHORT STORIES : Rib-Tickling Tales of Loopy Characters : BARREL FEVER by David Sedaris ; Little, Brown $19.95, 196 pages

September 29, 1994|MICHAEL DORRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fortunately, not every page of "Barrel Fever" will leave you laughing so hard that it's impossible to breathe--thank goodness for the droll but manageable Table of Contents--but still, this is one of those "Open at your own risk" books. Composed of 12 stories and four essays, "Barrel Fever" is wacky writing par excellence: original, acid and wild.

First-time author David Sedaris is familiar to listeners of National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" as the occasional apartment-cleaning, Santa-assisting commentator whose monologues have been known to stop rush hour traffic. The good news is, his flat, uninflected voice translates perfectly into print; he's just as funny to read as he is to listen to.

Critics and theorists are always going on about "the nature of comedy" or "the concept of humor." Usually the words surprise and rigidity come up to explain why a character or situation tickles an audience into guffaws and knee-slaps. We laugh at the unexpected or when a man or woman, oblivious to the dynamism of life, tries unsuccessfully to remain static in a fluid context.

There's plenty of both classical elements in "Barrel Fever." In the opening story, "Parade," for instance, the unnamed narrator is telling his side of a long saga after an appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show": the teary breakup of his affair with Charlton Heston; the joys of the new relationship with Mike Tyson, complicated by Tyson's insistence that their new Persian/Himalayan kitten be named Pitty Ting. To say that Sedaris plays this material straight is to do it a disservice; deadpan is probably the more appropriate term.

The same technique of inserting bizarre twists into an otherwise cliched melodrama works beautifully in "My Manuscript," a coming-of-age saga Genet would appreciate, and in "Season's Greetings," a Christmas letter from hell. In the latter story a woman relates a past year that includes, among many other events, the sudden appearance of her husband's illegitimate and very grown-up Vietnamese daughter.

"I recall mistaking her for a Trick-or-Treater! She wore, I remember, a skirt the size of a beer cozy, a short, furry jacket, and, on her face, enough rouge, eye shadow, and lipstick to paint our entire house, inside and out. She's a very small person and I mistook her for a child, a child masquerading as a prostitute."

In "Jamboree," a boy idolizes his older sister Vicki, a girl with far-fetched ambitions to be a singing sensation. "I can recall listening to her practice all alone in her room, holding a stick of deodorant in place of a microphone. Her voice was nothing special but she never allowed that fact to dampen her spirits. . . . I watched as she stood before the mirror, brushing out her hair and challenging her reflection. 'You are a singer, at the top of your game. You call the shots, nobody but you.' She would then change her clothes three of four times while discussing her future and all the records she would release. I would observe her, lying on the bed with a stuffed animal and see that as a record cover: Vicki: The Early Years or Playfully Yours, Vicki! I had it all worked out."

Which is more than Vicki did. In fact, she wound up married to a loser, with a baby she didn't want.

Beneath their zany discontinuities, Sedaris' characters are often painfully vulnerable, substituting a stubborn belief in the inevitability of a happy ending for clear sight. No one is more susceptible to this penchant than the author himself, as he switches from fiction to confessional essays at the end of "Barrel Fever."

His voice is distinctive--kind of Dave Barry meets Woody Allen--as it confides his adventures as a New York apartment cleaner, a would-be contributor to Giantess (don't ask) magazine, and especially as a sardonic elf at Macy's before Christmas. "I prefer being frank with children. I'm more likely to say, 'You must be exhausted,' or 'I know a lot of people who would kill for that little waistline of yours.' I am afraid I won't be able to provide the grinding enthusiasm Santa is asking for. I think I'll be a low-key sort of elf."

"The SantaLand Diaries" is an appropriate finale to "Barrel Fever" for it is both the funniest section of a very funny book and an example of what lifts Sedaris' humor to a sweet and intellectual plane. No matter what their quirks or excuses, we can't help but side with these loopy, self-deluding men and women as they bear down and examine their lives. I mean, hey, if we had been dealt their cards . . . there but for fortune might well go you and I.

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