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Cloaked in subversive wit

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim David Sedaris Little, Brown: 288 pp., $24.95

June 06, 2004|David Ehrenstein | David Ehrenstein is the author of "Open Secrets: Gay Hollywood, 1928-2000."

Fast approaching Death and Taxes on the short list of life's few "sure things" is the continued popularity of humorist David Sedaris, who delights in a manner that's almost as disarming as his casually cutting remarks about friends, family and total strangers. The ability -- or lack of same -- to cope with interpersonal minutiae is Sedaris' principal subject and a source of constant amusement. "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim," the latest compendium of his tart, snarky wit is certain to satisfy the millions who made bestsellers of "Barrel Fever," "Naked" and "Me Talk Pretty One Day" and eagerly anticipate his every appearance on the radio program "This American Life."

But who are these people anyway? How can they, in the era of "American Idol," Dr. Phil and "The Passion of the Christ," dare to collapse with laughter at lines like "I worried about my brother standing in his briefs and eating spoiled poultry by moonlight" or "I thought of the topless stay-at-home wife, opening the door to the gay UPS driver"? Or my favorite, "My sister is living in a Dorothea Lange photograph, and the homosexual in me wants to get down on his hands and knees and scrub until my fingers bleed." Shouldn't Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft have had us all rounded up and shipped off to Gitmo by now?

There is, of course, a long-established tradition of "everyday" observational humor, whose practitioners include Erma Bombeck, Fran Lebowitz, Jean Kerr and Calvin Trillin, that Sedaris is very much a part of. But when Kerr talks about her family or Trillin recalls his fellow diners at a restaurant there's nary a trace of the slightly sheathed malice that is Sedaris' stock in trade.

Likewise his recollections of his adolescence have none of the invigorating nostalgia found in radio monologuist Jean Shepherd's work. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to imagine "Ol' Shep" detailing the strip poker game in which Sedaris finds himself embroiled when his father suggests that he hang out with a group of neighborhood youths who are obviously more "manly" than our anti-hero. Moreover, instead of embarrassment Sedaris discovers opportunity. "To the rest of the group, a naked boy was like a lamp or a bath mat, something so familiar and uninteresting that it faded into the background, but for me it was different. A naked boy was what I desired more than anything else on earth."

Yes, Sedaris is, as we used to say in bygone days (the '70s), "openly gay." A fortiori, he's more than willing to talk about his boyfriend Hugh, the attraction he may (or far more often may not) feel toward others of his gender and varied reactions his orientation may produce among other family members, particularly his frequently disapproving dad. But though Sedaris, who's more than comfortable with his sexuality, has no political ax to grind (even when his father, who can't bring himself to pronounce the word "gay," casually tosses Sedaris out of the house because he can't deal with his son's gayness), his antics are often of far more subversive consequence than those of let-it-all-hang-out sex advice dispenser Dan Savage.

This comes vividly into play in a darkly funny recollection of his days as a professional housecleaner, when an older gentleman who clearly was expecting Sedaris to do something to him other than tidy up his apartment starts making loud and obsessive mention of "Fire Island!" in a desperate attempt to woo him. Similarly striking is his recounting of a mini-adventure at a hotel when a young boy enlists Sedaris' aid in taking some coffee and cocoa up to his hotel room. Will he be mistaken for a child molester? No, everyone thinks he's the kid's father. And when he arrives at the intended destination, the lad's mother mistakes him for the help. Sedaris, needless to say, is downright insulted.

More tender moods are precious few; Sedaris has little use for them. Of Hugh he declares, "We can't profess love unless talking through hand puppets." The reason is clear. Hugh means the world to him on most days, but every so often getting in a good line means more. And thus Sedaris offers this definition: "Real love amounts to withholding the truth, even when you're offered the perfect opportunity to hurt someone's feelings."

Sedaris fans may well find themselves getting misty-eyed at that line. And then bursting into a fit of the giggles. *

*

From Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

On our first afternoon we took a walk and came across the Anne Frank House, which was a surprise. I'd had the impression she lived in a dump, but it's actually a very beautiful seventeenth-century building right on the canal. Tree-lined street, close to shopping and public transportation: in terms of location, it was perfect. My months of house hunting had caused me to look at things in a certain way, and on seeing the crowd gathered at the front door, I did not think, Ticket line, but Open house!

We entered the annex behind the famous bookcase.... I felt an absolute certainty that this was the place for me. That it would be mine. The entire building would have been impractical and far too expensive, but the part where Anne Frank and her family had lived, their triplex, was exactly the right size and adorable, which is something they never tell you.

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