Article by Matthew Falk

We asked David Sedaris to draw a nutria, but he drew a pig and a turtle instead. My wife had just handed him our copy of When You Are Engulfed in Flames to sign, and he offered to draw some kind of animal in it. She suggested a spider. "Oh, no," he said, "My spiders are no good. What else?" So, I suggested the large, semi-aquatic, orange-toothed rodent. "I don't even know what a nutria looks like," Sedaris demurred. "But I'm really good at pigs."

So we said sure, a pig would be fine, and he drew it in one fluid line, with little pointed ears and a little piggy nose, and then he frowned and said, "Oh, look at that; that's really terrible. I'd better do a turtle, too."

Half an hour later, Sedaris took the stage at the perhaps excessively capacious Dow Event Center (which was maybe half full) and contextualized his unexpected interest in animals. His next book, he explained, will be a collection of fables. Actually, he corrected himself, they're not really fables, "because fables have morals." Therefore, he's calling the book a bestiary. Whatever term you wish to use to describe them, Sedaris's stories of talking animals—he read three of them—ran the gamut from the Thurberesque to the absurd. 

For me, the stand-out among these selections was a tale of marital jealousy and infidelity, narrated by an Irish setter. If that sounds really, really silly to you, you're right; it is. And yet, in typical Sedaris style, within the silliness there was more than a little darkness and cruelty, as all good comedy requires. The story is filled with digressions. In one of them, a man has his tonsils, which are perfectly healthy, removed in order to take them home and feed them to his dog. They "taste like chicken." In another, a woman's house burns down, and she saves her dog but lets her teenage son die. The smell of the boy's burning flesh reminds the narrator that he's hungry, and he hopes his owner will get him a hamburger.

In addition to the selections from the bestiary, Sedaris also read what he called "an essay" about how air travel turns people into assholes. In a nicely self-deprecating touch, he introduced this piece by talking about how boring it is for him to listen to other people complain about their bad travel experiences. I suspect, however, that he might feel differently if everyone complained in so pithy a fashion as Sedaris does.

On the subject of travel, Sedaris certainly knows whereof he speaks. He lives in London but spends a lot of time in France, Germany, Japan, and the United States. He said he needs to have at least three different homes or else he gets bored with the furniture.

His current tour will take him to "34 or 35 cities" across America. Every night, he said, after a reading, he re-writes his stories, then reads the new versions the next night, then re-writes them again. When one of his pieces trailed off abruptly rather than coming to a resolution, he said this was because he hadn't liked the way the ending had gone the night before so he'd scrapped it. Similarly, he said he had removed a character from his air-travel piece upon realizing that she "wasn't doing anything interesting." As a fellow writer and compulsive reviser, I took comfort in the knowledge that a professional of Sedaris's stature takes roughly the same approach as I do, constantly tweaking his work even after it's been published.

Sedaris closed the evening by reading passages from his diary, which he said is mostly full of "whining" but occasionally yields something worth sharing. In many ways, this was my favorite part of the show, for it offered a glimpse into his thought process and his spontaneous impressions of the world around him. Among the topics discussed: The foolish choices people make when selecting t-shirt slogans; the inscrutability of product names at Tesco supermarket (I'm still not sure what "Lightly Dusted River Cobbler" is, although it probably has fish in it); why a 12-year-old girl with hypertrichosis (a.k.a. "werewolf syndrome") shouldn't wear glasses or earrings; and the questionable educational benefits of sending a "certified therapy horse" into elementary reading classes.

The question-and-answer session with the audience at the end of the show yielded further gems of information, such as the fact that Phyllis Diller always travels with a personal supply of pepper and balsamic vinegar, and that there exists a full-body swimsuit for Muslim women, complete with a veil, which is actually called a "burqini." Also, although TV in the U.K. allows you to say all sorts of outrageous things that you can't say in the U.S., it is still not permissible to say "scab-covered penis" on the air on Good Friday. Any other day is fine, though.

© Matthew Falk, 2010