I’ve seen the David Sedaris phenomenon grow from a gathering of NPR junkies in Ann Arbor, [Mich.], a dozen years ago to a hanging-off-the-staircase mob filling Joseph-Beth Booksellers’ former Shaker Square location in 2001. So I won’t be surprised if Sedaris sells out Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall on April 21. He’s become our generation’s Mark Twain, our most popular literary humorist. His withering wit demolishes character flaws and easy sentiment. He’s the guy who says the unsayable.
In Sedaris’ early work, he audaciously gambled with becoming completely unlikable. But his cutting satires have become popular anyway because he’s as brutally honest toward himself as he is toward anyone he mocks. We laugh with him at the obnoxious Macy’s customers in line to meet Santa and his ancient grandmother rubbing olive oil into her hair because we know he’s even more self-critical.
In his newest collection, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, we find him in airport smoking sections — “tanks,” he calls them — with his “old friend with the hole in his throat, … the servicemen from Abu Ghraib, two prisoners handcuffed to federal agents, and the Joad family.” But the important thing is, he’s not making fun of them from the outside: He’s a smoker too, in the tank with them. Lots of best-sellers and $40 to $50 book tour tickets have given Sedaris’ eccentricities a wider stage — he moves from Paris to Tokyo to quit smoking — but he’s still Exhibit A of human folly, his own best character.