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Time’s winged chariot is on the minds and tails/tales of David Sedaris and Kate Clinton, now in their fifties and sixties respectively. Like many of us still on the right side of the grass, they have managed to find both humor and pathos in aging. Sedaris devotes a long piece to his life as a smoker and an even longer one to his attempt to give it up by moving to Tokyo. Another whack at the nicotine patch or hypnosis would have been a lot cheaper, but money is not an issue for Sedaris, who must have more residences than John McCain. He whisks the reader to his other apartments and homes in Paris, Normandy, and New York. The way that this book has nested near the top of the New York Times Nonfiction Bestseller List makes me think that the current recession–a depression for many–has made many of us want to live Sedaris’ jet-setting life vicariously.
As in earlier collections, Sedaris uses his life on the road as fodder for his narratives. Despite one far-fetched incident in an airplane (“Solutions to Saturday’s Puzzle”) in which he accidentally spits a lozenge onto the lap of the hostile woman sleeping next to him, one of the funniest pieces in the collection (“Buddy Can You Spare a Tie?”) involves his choice of wearing a bowtie for a book tour. First, he fills us in on his sartorial life, down to his first formal event bowtie. He finds, however, that the tie says different things to different people he encounters: Some associate him with Orville Redenbacher while others assume he’s a conservative. One wit dubs the bowtie “the pierced eyebrow of the Bush administration.”
Sedaris’ persistent and usually unsuccessful forays into learning foreign languages are getting a bit tiresome. “In the Waiting Room” is devoted to his overuse of the French word “d’accord” (“OK”) to respond to phrases he doesn’t understand. The premise is all-too-credible: one of my female friends once agreed to sex with a male Cuban drug dealer while another woman came home a redhead from a French beautician because they didn’t understand the gist of a conversation in a language they barely knew. In his eagerness to please, Sedaris winds up sitting in his underwear in a doctor’s waiting room.
Sedaris’ attempts to learn Japanese are too similar to his earlier failures to perfect French. Eugene Ionesco wrote The Bald Soprano out of his failure to learn English; in other words, the Ionesco managed to transform his experience of language acquisition and his feelings of failure into an amazing play. Also tiresome are some of the author’s diary entries that are best left unprinted–for instance, one of his tangents about a Japanese barber with foul-smelling hands. Though many people have paranoid flashes about what other people’s hands have been into, this anecdote leads nowhere in “The Smoking Section.”
Sedaris’ strong suit, whether he’s befriending a loser out of his own lack of self-confidence or feeding spiders outside his Normandy window, is his willingness to make himself the butt of the joke. He chides those who worry more about the homeless cats in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, only to confess his own obsession with April, a spider. He examines the flaws of his aging body as if he’s inspecting it in one of those pitiless magnification mirrors that makes most people over fifty break out into hives. For Sedaris, his shapeless ass is the body part he least likes.
In the audio version, three pieces–“Momento Mori,” “In the Waiting Room” and “Town and Country” were recorded live. Many listeners prefer feeling part of an event, but like the laugh track over a television sitcom, I bristle at being cued for laughter. Some appropriate music between tracks sets the tone nicely for each piece.
Kate Clinton’s performance is also live, but the mechanics of a comedy CD are a bit different because of the interaction between the performer and the audience. While Sedaris is reading his story aloud, Clinton is ad-libbing, or at least appears to be doing so. Perhaps every audience gives her an opening for her great repartees. To the disbelief of some audience members to Clinton’s discussion of vaginal dryness, she warns them that one day “your Thanksgiving turkey will be wetter than your vagina.” Later, she remarks that on Thanksgiving sex does not take place because the surfeited diners collapse by bedtime: “There are no tops or bottoms, only sides.” Her other physical problems involve a “seven-year sleep deprivation” caused by Bush’s administration, a president she terms the “sadist in chief.” And, how can she resist poking fun at Dick Cheney, and his wife, “Lon.”
Though, like Sedaris, Clinton assesses the changing climate of her own body, she is more concerned about the political climate of the world. She is not shy about mocking the failed relationships of heterosexuals, and her talent is that while Clinton’s comments are both bold and hilarious, she never offends or demeans her audience. After describing some disastrous love triangles, including the now-famous story of the female astronaut who wore Depends as she drove across country from Texas to Florida to confront her paramour, Clinton quips, “It’s not going well for straight people…and I couldn’t be happier.” She also wonders, as do I, how the astronaut drove so far on one tank of gas.
Both works are hilarious at times, well-worth listening to more than once. They represent different ends on the queer continuum of humor. Sedaris is the smart and funny gay man in your building that you’d love to have over for a good laugh about the neighbors or to hear more anecdotes about his family. Clinton is someone you want to sit down with to laugh (because you don’t want to cry) about the state of queer nation and the disastrous policies of the Bush/Cheney (almost over!) years. Times aren’t getting easier, but while laughing isn’t a cure, it sometimes is the greatest help in getting through the hardest days.
1CD, Unabridged, $20
Performed by Kate Clinton
When You’re Engulfed in Flames
8 CDs, Unabridged
Performed by David Sedaris
Hachette Audio / $34.98