Without a traditional accolades-strewn introduction, essayist and humorist David Sedaris hit the stage of the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts on Wednesday night holding armloads of his work. He wore tortoise shell glasses, a dress shirt and necktie, and a huge grin. In his shirt pocket several pencils were visible: He would put these to good work during his 90-minute reading.
Whereas many writers read from crisp, already published books with annotated pertinent passages, Sedaris appeared with raw and loose pages, many newly created, he said. “Thank you much for coming,” were his first words to the nearly sold-out audience after one ardent fan yelled out “I love you.”
His first story, “Move On Up a Little Higher” (also the title of a Mahalia Jackson song about laying down “heavy burdens”) tells of the angst associated with being a young self-aware gay kid in middle school in absolute hilarious phrasings. As an occasional Billie Holiday impersonator, it seems likely that Sedaris intends a parallel subtle narrative mood. This was a perfect opener, weaving together his recurrent themes of family, mortality and discovery.
Sedaris artfully intercuts between past and future, the deeply personal and the universal in a manner that is lovingly recollecting and fully engaging. His stories unabashedly recount childhood awkwardness in, at times, cringe-inducing fashion, but always rounding back to humor. At times he can be unexpectedly ribald. His art is his candor.
The story received a sudden edit with a pencil grabbed out of the shirt pocket after he stumbled on one of his fresh phrases. “That is a brand new story, I’m going to 40 cities on this tour.” Buffalo, Sedaris mentioned, was the second stop on a tour that will include two back-to-back nights at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan next month. When he said that he paused with his great comic timing, basking in the ovation that his fans shot forth.
It was on to the next essay, “An English Language,” about hilarious differences of our native earthly tongues. Sedaris makes occasional light of his attempts at learning new languages on his tours, and, he would say later in the evening, during travel “to cross a country off my list.” He would talk of wanting to communicate with people everywhere, to say “I live in this world, too.”
“Company Man,” another new piece introduced at the Center for the Arts, is a lovely story about aging and sibling ties. The title references his guest room in his current home in England, a fact he reports with “middle-aged satisfaction.”
One of the night’s biggest laughs came after telling of his sister’s prescription-induced sleepwalking and eating habit, with Sedaris looking up at the audience aglow when delivering the story’s best line about fish food, flies and Duraflame logs. His handy pencil made another appearance for more spontaneous story edits. “Stay busy is the trick,” of middle age, he opines at the story’s end.
Sedaris read from various, casually selected diary entries beginning with the dates and the various cities in which they were written: all were short and vivid vignettes.
One was a gynecologist’s office-based joke, and another about searching for a perfect “grotesque” gift for Amy, his most oft-mentioned sibling and occasional collaborator.
Sedaris read a passage from a book that he has recently discovered, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick, a Los Angeles Times correspondent. He admires it so much that it would be for sale, he said, in the lobby alongside his own work.
What he likes best about her book is that it’s “absolutely fascinating and heartbreaking.”
He could be describing his own work.