Say it in French and it sounds funnier

My Talk Pretty One Day By David Sedaris Little, Brown & Co. 272 pp., $22.95

Riding the Paris Metro one day, David Sedaris, who had recently moved to France from New York City, found himself sandwiched between an American tourist couple.

"Peeeeew, can you smell that? That is pure French, baby," the man said loudly to his wife. "This little froggy is ripe." It took a minute for Sedaris to realize the man was talking about him. He lives for such moments.

From his observations temping as a Christmas elf at Macy's to a recent essay recounting the humiliation he endured in French class in Paris, Mr. Sedaris's peculiar genius lies in his ability to transform the mortification of everyday life into wildly entertaining art.

His third book, "Me Talk Pretty One Day," is a compilation of essays - many originally broadcast on National Public Radio or published in Esquire - recounting myriad moments of absurdity.

In his sister Amy's Greenwich Village apartment, the diminutive gap-toothed writer rocks ceaselessly in a child-sized rocking chair, amid a dcor of stuffed squirrels, rabbit paintings, and a synthetic roast turkey set on the fireplace mantel. (Amy is also a comedian, with her own show on Comedy Central.)

With an elfin voice and gentle manner that belies the sardonic tone of his humor, Sedaris recounts the circuitous route that's led to his cultlike status among a growing group of followers.

Sedaris grew up in North Carolina among five siblings striving to out-wit one another. "We could be at the table for two, three, four hours every night," recalls Sedaris. "Just basically to get my Mom's attention. Everyone would be trying to get in, competing. You would learn to say not the thing that you actually said, but the thing that you thought of later that you wish you'd said. It wasn't lying, it was just talking," he says, shrugging his shoulders.

That makes it difficult to know how many of the fantastic stories in his books are actually true, but Sedaris insists most are. Like the lacerating look at his sadistic French teacher who takes pleasure in humiliating her students into a cowering silence. When dismayed school officials asked why he didn't just ask to transfer to a different class, he thought, "If you're a writer, and something like this happens, you're not going to transfer - you're going to move to the front row."

Sedaris became an essayist only after failing at a series of other artistic endeavors. After dropping out of two colleges, he went through a self-destructive, drug-induced period as a performance artist, where he did things like stuffing vegetable crates with cigarette butts and toenail clippings, and cutting his hair with garden shears onstage. He managed to get admitted to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but unable to comprehend what passed for modern art, he abandoned painting for writing.

Sedaris came to New York City in the early '90s, where he wrote at night and cleaned apartments and did other odd jobs by day. One of those led to the elf stint at Macy's, where, wearing green velvet knickers and matching smock, pointy shoes and a stocking cap, Sedaris made biting observations about Santa, his co-elves, and the crowds of pushy parents and spoiled children who came to visit. His deadpan reading of the essay on public radio seized the attention of listeners - and editors - nationwide.

" 'Santaland Diaries,' when put onto Morning Edition, became the single most requested program in the show's history," says Ira Glass, who, as a Morning Edition producer, first asked Sedaris to perform on the radio. Since 1995, Glass has produced his own popular weekly radio show, This American Life, to which Sedaris still contributes regularly. That first radio reading helped land Sedaris the contract for his book, "Barrel Fever," which was followed three years later by "Naked." Both became bestsellers.

The first half of his new book is devoted to stories about childhood, and the second half to tales of his new life in France. Sedaris continues to mock the most improbable subjects, from the strange American tradition of the Easter Bunny ("he bring of the chocolate," Sedaris tries to explain to his French class), to the suicidal lows of drug withdrawal ("I might have thrown myself out the window but I lived on the first floor and didn't have the energy to climb the stairs to the roof").

That uncanny ability to transform acute pain into gems of wit is Sedaris's unique and sometimes jarring talent. Some of his funniest and most poignant pieces are those based on his childhood, in which his deluded father plays a prominent role. Significantly, Sedaris' father never expected his then-struggling son to be successful. "He always told me I should give up," Sedaris recalls, revealing a rare glimpse of bitterness.

"But I think I wouldn't have it any other way," he says brightening. "What if he had encouraged me? I just did everything, all my life, that he told me not to do. So if he had been supportive, and if he had said that I should try to be a painter and that I should try to be a writer, I would probably be a biochemist somewhere."

*Daphne Eviatar is a staff writer for the American Lawyer magazine.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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