Thursday, June 5, 2008

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

Not that I would have tried anyway, but I absolutely couldn't resist buying David Sedaris' new book in hardback because of the title. It turns out to be one of those Japanese translations into English. I was hoping it was going to be one of his stories from real life (although in a way it is, because it appears in the longest essay, a piece on how he quit smoking and why). As usual with a Sedaris book of essays, I laughed out loud while reading each one. When we had to wait in a doctor's office yesterday, I said to my daughter "so, you'd rather I didn't take this book?" waving the Sedaris book, and she said "it might be better not to." She's still emotionally scarred from the time I was reading Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim in the YMCA waiting room during Walker's swimming lesson and I got to what you tell your children in Holland on Christmas Eve in "Six to Eight Black Men" and I couldn't muffle my laughter, and then I couldn't stop laughing, and then I couldn't get my breath and tears were running down my face...and I have a really loud laugh....

I have such a loud laugh, and laugh so often, that one time after a movie an old lady came up to me, touched my arm with a quavering hand, and said "you really enjoyed that, didn't you?" I said "yes, I did."

Anyway, according to a woman we once met in a parking lot on a barrier island in South Carolina, if your hair is on fire, it's okay to park in the handicapped parking space. This is what she told us when my family, feeling protective of my limited ability to walk any distance during our last trip to the beach when my knee was completely shot but I wasn't admitting it yet, confronted her about why she'd parked in the only handicapped space in the lot when she didn't have a handicapped tag. "But my hair was on fire" she said. "I was driving, and I smelled something, and I had to pull over." We didn't see her actually being engulfed in flames, but her "handicap" generated great hilarity for the rest of the trip. Anyone who was there would tell this story with more details and make it funnier. I do remember that later during the same trip, during a "pirate tour" of downtown Charleston, the tour guide described the way Blackbeard would tie firecrackers into his beard and light them. From the other side of a pineapple fountain, I heard my daughter murmur "guess he wanted to park at the handicapped pier."

Other than my friend Miriam, there's no one better at taking a story like that and making it into something that shows you what people are like than David Sedaris. In "Of Mice and Men," he even tells about how he read an unusual newspaper story and evidently embroidered it for his own purposes, coming back to it only to prove a point and finding that he couldn't, in fact, prove it:

"Then there was the story mailed to me by a stranger in New England, who'd clipped it from his local paper. It concerned an eighty-year-old Vermont man whose home was overrun by mice. The actual house was not described, but in my mind it was two stories tall and isolated on a country road. I also decided that it was painted white--not that it mattered so much, I just thought it was a nice touch. So the retired guy's house was overrun, and when he could no longer bear it, he fumigated. The mice fled into the yard and settled into a pile of dead leaves, which no doubt crackled beneath their weight. Thinking that he had them trapped, the man set the pile on fire, then watched as a single flaming mouse ran back into the basement and burned the house to the ground."

Later he finds that he has embroidered the story:

"I thought I would send him the news clipping as well, and it was here that my triumph lost its luster. 'Mouse gets revenge: sets home ablaze,' the headline read, and then I noticed the letters 'AP,' and saw that while the story had been published in Vermont, it had actually taken place in New Mexico, which sort of ruined everything. Now, instead of a white, wood-frame house, I saw a kind of shack with cow skulls tacked to the outer walls. It then turned out that the homeowner had not fumigated, and that there was only one mouse, which he somehow caught alive, and threw onto a pile of leaves he'd started burning some time earlier. This would certainly qualify as thoughtless, but there was no moment when he looked at the coughing mice, running for their lives from the poisonous fumes. He did not hear the leaves crackling beneath their feet, or reach for his matches, thinking Aha!"

But, of course, it's this story-telling ability that makes his well-crafted essays so eminently readable. It's like having a friend with good timing who can tell a story and make it hilarious. One time Ron found a mouse in the live trap we keep under our sink. Usually we take these mice to campus and put them right outside the building that houses the English department, but this night we were tired and didn't want to drive the mouse anywhere, so Ron walked it across the street and let it go. "You didn't take it far enough away," I whined. "It'll come back." The next morning, Ron opened the front curtains and stood there for a minute. "Look at that!" he said. We all came over and looked out. "Did you see that mouse limping slowly up the driveway?" he said.

Neither Ron nor Miriam, who have lived with me in houses near the woods with wolf spiders in the basement, have ever told a story like this about them:

"Big shaggy things the size of a baby's hand, they roamed the basement of my parents' house and evoked from my sisters the prolonged, spine-tingling screams called for in movies when the mummy invades the delicate lady's dressing room. 'Kill it!' they'd yell, and then I'd hear a half-dozen shoes hitting the linoleum, followed by a world atlas or maybe a piano stool--whatever was heavy and close at hand.
I was put off by the wolf spiders as well but never thought that they were purposefully out to get me. For starters, they didn't seem that organized. Then too, I figured they had their own lives to lead. This was an attitude I picked up from my father, who squashed nothing that was not directly related to him. 'You girls are afraid of your own shadows,' he'd say, and no matter how big the thing was, he'd scoot it onto a newspaper and release it outside. Come bedtime I'd knock on my sisters' door and predict that the spider was now crawling to the top of the house, where he'd take a short breather before heading down the chimney. 'I read in the encyclopedia that this particular breed is known for its tracking ability, and that once it's pegged its victims, almost nothing will stop it. Anyway, good night.'"

On a similar note, I've had the opportunity to eat a Japanese breakfast, and despite a well-deserved reputation for being adventurous about food, I passed it up. But not as entertainingly as Sedaris, who not only passes it up, but says:

"while shuddering I imagined a mother scolding her son. 'Oh, no you don't,' she might say. 'This is the most important meal of the day, and you're not going anywhere until you finish your pickles. That's right, and your seaweed too. Then I want you to eat your cold poached egg submerged in broth and at least half of that cross-eyed fish.'"

Although none of the essays are as side-splitting as "Six to Eight Black Men," I very much enjoyed "What I Learned," a Princeton commencement address, and, as always, I love the way the cumulative laughter builds as I read the book.


Anonymous said...

Well, you know I'll be getting that book. I happen to have Sedaris on CD reading "Six to Eight Black Men," which I play for my classes whenever it seems appropriate (really, who cares appropriate, though?). I remember the first time I read it and thought that I would injure an internal organ with such guffawing. Didn't I send you that book for Christmas or something?

I'm waiting to get the book until I get downtown to Otto's, our local bookstore.

David Sedaris was on the Daily Show and it was neat to see him just in a conversation, not reading his work.

Jeanne said...

Yes, Laura, you sent me a lovely hardback copy of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (with a card that said "if nothing else, read Six to Eight Black Men"--which puzzled me a little at first). That was after Sarah had introduced me to Sedaris by sending me a hardback of Me Talk Pretty One Day.